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April 23, 2019

3/21/2019 12:47:00 PM
55 acre parkland gift not an obvious yes vote for North Branch City Council, review started in work session Tuesday

North Branch City Council met in work session format Tuesday night this week, with Kelly Neider absent, to look at a 55-acre park donation from all sides. The land is to the north side of Hwy 95, about a mile east of city hall, with Hemingway on its east edge. It is offered by the Harder-Schmidt  family in a package deal being facilitated by the Trust for Public Land.  

There are a number of complicatons.

The council’s consensus after hours of review Tuesday night was to have city staff meet with the family members and Bob McGillivray of Trust for Public Land for further negotiations.  

Council was told the absolute deadline is April 9, for a decision supporting a TPL application for state lottery funding,  to preserve the parcel.  

This special work session included city Parks, Trails & Open Space advisory committee members and citizen members of the North Branch EDA.  There were about a dozen citizens in the audience monitoring this matter as well.  It was not a public hearing, however.

This proposal has run up against a classic dilemma-- when is there “enough” open space already set aside for a growing urban area, and when do the policymakers say thanks but no thanks.
Add to this;  the fact the parcel contains a route for a bypass that would take Hwy 95 up and around the main downtown to connect westerly either at 400th or 410th and go to the freeway.  The I-35 intersection could be an interchange or it could just be a bridge.  There could be secondary streets from this new route to the city industrial park and that would open up masses of undeveloped land just north of Hwy 95.

City Engineer Lee Gustafson went over the planning and creation of this bypass route in detail before council heard from committee members. The bypass really found legs when there was a frack-sand trucking issue a few years ago as the drying terminal in North Branch was accepting mass shipments of frack sand from Wisconsin.

Resident Laurie Warner, on the Parks, Trails & Open Space group, said one good thing about this park donation is that it has re-lit the debate over the transportation layout in the city.  She said this optional route around downtown congestion is “long overdue” and now maybe city leaders will quit talking about it and get going.

The family members attending the work session heard the city desires the Harder-Schmidt gift to include a dedicated right-of-way preserving this north-south corridor and also allowing for an east-west road, directly into the industrial business section (along the south of the wastewater treatment plant lot.)

North Branch totally supports the concept of protecting the part where the Sunrise River abuts this future park space. But, as City Administrator Renae Fry pointed out-- if the family were to sell to a developer, the riverside as “unbuildable” would be deeded to the city as part of a greenspace and wildlife corridor currently in the Comprehensive Plan.

The bypass is part of the Comprehensive Plan as well.  If a developer, again, wanted to plat a project on this property, they would be required to set aside the bypass route.

The alternative is to amend the Comp Plan, which takes a four-fifths vote.

John Pantelis, PTOS Chair, said the city just spent thousands of hours and money creating an updated Comp Plan, literally a few months ago.  He said without the bypass route being part of this donation even he, as a longtime parks booster, wouldn’t support this.  The public needs access and if there is no way to enjoy this park it doesn’t work.

Bob Walz, also of the PTOS, asked what the odds are that the city will ever have sufficient money to build this collector road off Hwy 95 and any new roads to the west?

Engineer Gustafson agreed this project will require an investment of millions.

Council member Brian Voss said right now there are more negatives than positives in his mind.  He observed the city has quite a lot of park and open space already.  “I know the family’s heart is in the right place,” he added, “but North Branch is not at a loss for parkland.”

Council member Kathy Blomquist supported continued talks with the family to see if a compromise can be reached.

Mayor Jim Swenson also thanked the family for this conceptual gift,  but he commented that while he campaigned there were two issues of importance to voters-- traffic and water bills. He asked the council to mull over what had been said, see if any feedback comes from the public either way on a vote to accept this property.  and be prepared to take action on supporting the funding application later.

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