Public input shapes Lake Elmo Park Reserve

For eight months of conceptualization, discussion and consideration, the Washington County Parks Division has worked to put together a master plan amendment for the 2,100-acre Lake Elmo Park Reserve that incorporates public feedback, professional input and thoughts from Lake Elmo, Woodbury and Oakdale representatives.
Chief among the proposals included in the 10- to 15-year concept plan for the county-owned reserve is the decision not to change the park’s status from reserve to a regional park.
“The difference in designation is that, when it’s a regional park, you have the opportunity to develop 100 percent of it, if you like,” said County Park Director Jim Luger of the idea first floated to the communities several months ago. “That was a point of contention, I think.”
By retaining the park reserve status, no more than 20 percent of park land can ever be developed. According to Luger and Senior Planner John Elholm, with all of the proposed amenities still making the rounds throughout the county included, only about 9.14 percent of the reserve would be developed in the foreseeable future.
“We heard loud and clear that people wanted it to remain a park reserve,” Luger said.
Whether it was through the three public meetings held over the last six months; countless written and oral feedback; or its meetings with the Lake Elmo and Woodbury city councils (on Dec. 6 and Dec. 20 respectively; a presentation will be made to the Oakdale City Council on Jan. 10), the county has listened to scores of responses to its proposals and has tried to respond in kind.
In addition to making no changes to the park reserve’s status, the county has abandoned the idea of connecting to Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park after meeting staunch opposition from local residents and the city. Similarly, many of the changes that are in the draft amendment were borne out of discussion and feedback from the public.
For example, park officials hope to restore much or all of the natural vegetation in the park by phasing out its farming component over the next decade, a notion supported by many residents hoping to increase and maintain the reserve’s natural beauty.
“Much of the park has been disturbed by farming over the years,” said Larry Walker, a consultant with Sanders, Wacker, Bergley, Inc., the firm hired to assist with updating the master plan. “But the potential for restoration is high.”
Since the original master plan was first drafted in 1978, several initiatives - like building an interpretive nature center facility - have fallen by the wayside due to lack of funding or interest. The county is now trying to resurrect some of those concepts while also equipping the reserve with modern features like a lighted ski trail.
“There weren’t Rollerblades or mountain bikes back then,” Luger noted of the dated master plan. A new paved trail is proposed to circle Eagle Point Lake as well as a new trailhead for mountain biking and snowshoe trails in the western part of the reserve.
“The county park staff did an excellent job providing opportunities for the public to give input,” Lake Elmo Council member Liz Johnson said. “They clearly wanted the community to have access.
“I believe the high level concerns that most of Lake Elmo residents didn’t want included were heard by their staff.”

Ideas welcomed
Indeed, the bulk of the 10-page document with citizen comments (available online at www.co.washington.mn.us) comes from Lake Elmo residents, either through e-mail or written letter - though feedback from Stillwater, St. Paul, Grant and several other communities is included as well. Examining those comments and the plan amendment in its current form serves as proof that the county has taken public input into consideration.
“I favor a trail system in Lake Elmo and in (the) park that ultimately ends at the Gateway Trail,” wrote Gloria Knoblauch, a longtime Lake Elmo resident.
New access points for the park are a major feature of the plan amendment and they include a railroad and highway underpass to the north that connects with the Lake Elmo trail system and the 18-mile Gateway Trail. However, they are also a point of contention as a proposed Klondike Road connection to the northeast that would provide walking access to residents of the Old Village for the first time has been questioned by some residents who live along the road. Fears of speeding cars and increased parking issues were raised at the Dec. 6 council meeting.
“We’ve never had official access to the park from the trail system plan before,” City Planner Chuck Dillerud told the assembly. “We’d have to overcome the problems.”
“As a suggestion, moving the equestrian center to the northern area of the park would be great,” wrote Ellen Neuenfeldt, an avid horseback rider. “The current center is getting busy with campers, kids and archery, which is a safety concern when animals are in the picture.”
County planners apparently shared Neuenfeldt’s concerns since their amendment draft shows a new equestrian campground and trailhead moved north and distant from new traditional and field archery ranges. Also, modern family campgrounds will replace the former equestrian site and the plan hopes to both expand the primitive camping area and improve its group campground by relocating a north farmstead barn nearby to provide rest rooms and permanent shelter.

Differing opinions
No matter what changes are made as a result of resident input, there are likely to be citizens who would prefer different adjustments made, or more likely, based on the county’s record of comments, no changes at all.
“We feel expanding the park amenities would not meet the needs of the area for several reasons,” wrote Carter and Tracy Adkins of Lake Elmo. “There is not enough infrastructure to support the added traffic. Also, Lake Elmo will be adding tens of thousands more (people) to the area within the next 15 years.
“The current park offers something for everyone (and there’s) no need to expand.”
Nevertheless, in addition to the list of amenities the plan proposes, the county is also looking to potentially acquire some property south and east of the reserve in exchange for a three-acre site owned by the county (though not within the reserve) that the city is interested in building a new fire station on.
Several residents have suggested features that the county has not included in its plan, like an off-the-leash dog park and Frisbee golf course. Meanwhile, the idea of lights along the park reserve’s ski trails has been met with mixed reviews.
“Some people say, ‘There’s going to be light pollution.’ Other people say, ‘That’d be wonderful,’” Luger said. “We’re looking at (light posts) that are only 3 to 4 feet high and doing it in the woodland area where you wouldn’t even know it was there unless you were using it.”
Luger and Elholm have stressed that the plan is far from complete and resident feedback is still very much welcomed. After meeting with the Oakdale City Council in January, the next steps will be for the Parks Commission and County Board to review and approve a final draft of the amendment. Another public hearing will likely be held before the board’s approval. Finally, the Metropolitan Council will review the document for final approval, probably in May.
Elholm said cost will eventually be factored into the plan, but it is an element that has not been addressed yet.
“You don’t really want to estimate until you’ve got a good handle on what the plan will call for,” he said, noting that additional funding would have been available had the county elected to change the status to a regional park.
For now, Elholm said, the public and city input component is paramount to the final document presented to the Met Council this spring.
“There’s always good ideas that come out of the public process,” he said. “The issue really is trying to have a balance. You’re going to get views that are divergent. We want to come up with a plan that balances different ideas.”

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