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Council denies petition calling for environmental assessment at Kraewood development
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Questions concerning the proposed Kraewood development on a 12-acre former Christmas tree farm where residents say they've seen the endangered rusty patched bumble bee — came to a head at the Oct. 5 Northfield City Council meeting.

Developers' plans include construction of a 100-unit apartment building, 22 single-family homes, two twin homes and a four-plex off Lincoln Parkway just south of Greenvale Park Elementary.

Among those who spoke at the meeting, which lasted for 4 hours and 50 minutes, were three groups: Northfield for Sustainable Housing, Environments & Development (SHED), a residents' advocacy group united in demanding that the council require developers to order and pay for an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW); the Kraewood development team which opposed the EAW for reasons of timeliness and cost; and dozens of unaffiliated residents who mostly spoke out in favor of the council requiring the order.

More than 750 people, at least half of whom were Northfield residents, had signed a petition calling for the EAW in September, a number frequently referenced by Northfield SHED during their presentation to the council.

Northfield City Council met for nearly five hours Oct. 5 to consider a petition to require developers to order an environmental assessment worksheet for their proposed development of the Paulson property. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Nearly two hours after voting to extend the meeting beyond the 3-hour time limit, the council voted unanimously — with the exception of Councilor Brad Ness due to a conflict of interest — to deny the resident petition for the preparation of an EAW.

Requesting an EAW

The council chambers were at capacity, with dozens of residents inside the full room and outside in the hallway waiting their turn to speak out on the matter during public forum. Nearly every speaker used their allotted 2-minute speaking time to implore the council to order an EAW.

“Pollinators are in decline across the globe,” said Derek Haars, a beekeeper who sells honey and manages around 100 bee colonies in Rice and Dakota counties. “The rusty patched bumble bee is dependent on spring ephemerals … the only way to save bees is by making responsible land management decisions.”

He added that the EAW is a good tool for making decisions regarding those issues and urged the council to vote yes on requiring developers to order one.

Another resident, Tristan Cox, said that “the matter of the EAW is a matter of law,” citing Minnesota Statute 116D.04, Subd. 2a, which states that “[w]here there is potential for significant environmental effects resulting from any major governmental action, the action must be preceded by a detailed environmental impact statement prepared by the responsible governmental unit.”

Diane Angell, a biology professor at St. Olaf College who holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology and has worked with endangered species for 30 years with the National Forest Service, told the council that, “As a scientist and Northfield citizen, I have both an ethical and moral responsibility to speak up when I see environmental concerns are not being taken seriously.”

Diane Angell, a biology professor at St. Olaf College, made her case to the council that an EAW should be ordered prior to development. (Julian Hast/southernminn.com)

Angell spoke for about 10 minutes on what she saw as the development’s threat to the endangered rusty patched bumble bee, as well as the negative environmental impact it could have on the city’s west side. The bee has been living in the 12-acre parcel, she said, and the surrounding wildlife will not provide the adequate nesting and overwintering needs of the queen bees. Adjacent neighborhoods do not have spring ephemerals, she said, which queens rely on for their survival.

One point that was focused on by the councilors, who asked Angell questions after her presentation, was that EAWs are best completed in the March through October timeframe. Angell addressed Councilor Jami Reister’s question about whether an EAW could be done outside that timeframe, saying that it would not be ideal, but it might be possible. Reister followed up.

“I guess I’m wondering if there are any intentions of actually insisting that it be done in March through October, thus delaying any project for months?” Reister asked.

“I can’t speak to that,” Angell said. “I’m not in charge of that. To me, that is the council members’ choice. If you request an EAW, and somebody is required to complete that EAW, then that’s going to get completed.”

Councilor Jessica Peterson White asked about Angell’s statement during her presentation that the ordering of the EAW would not delay development.

“Could you just explain how you see that to be the case?” Peterson White asked.

“It will slightly delay development, but the time taken for an EAW is time well spent,” Angell responded. “Understanding what is there, I think, should be a priority.”

Reister stepped in again to question Angell’s point that the development will affect the west side of town, “the only region of Northfield identified by the MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] as a region of environmental justice concern due to poverty,” according to Angell’s Powerpoint. Reister asked how “providing a safe community and affordable housing” supports Angell’s broader points, to which Angell expressed her concern about the distribution of accessible green spaces to lower socioeconomic groups.

“The need for housing isn’t gonna go away,” Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau said later to Angell. “How do we justify [canceling or delaying the development] to, for instance, a mother who needs an affordable place to live, and she could potentially walk her child to school across the street and we’re saying that we can’t do that because of these reasons?”

“I think we have maybe a more nuanced understanding of what makes a great development,” Angell said. “We could have smaller apartment buildings. I would welcome people to ask the folks that live in our community what they would like to see, instead of assuming that people would like to be in large apartment buildings. That’s not always what people would prefer.”

Developers respond

In responding to residents’ request for an EAW, developers invited in a traffic consultant, landscape architect, civil engineer and environmental consultant to present to the council on various concerns, including traffic and environmental risks.

Responding to Angell’s point that city staff confirm there will be 808 total daily trips for the construction, putting the endangered bee through a 14.7% increase in traffic, Vern Swing, of Swing Traffic Solutions, said that the scale of that increase requires some perspective to understand. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, he said, typically requires “2,500 per day before they require an EAW, or 250 peak-hours trips … we are not close to that threshold.”

Swing added that his traffic study’s analysis indicated that “all of the intersections” involved in the development “will operate at level of service A,” indicating very low delay, “with the worst movements operating at level of service B,” indicating low delay. His results, he said, are the same as those arrived at by the traffic study done on Greenvale Elementary School, as well as by engineering consulting firm Bolton & Menk, and similar to those arrived at by city staff regarding the St. Olaf access reconfiguration.

Annie Weeks, of Midwest Natural Resources, an environmental consulting firm, presented the firm’s survey of the parcel, which she said was conducted Oct. 1. The results of the survey, she said, came after looking at publicly available data pertaining to ecological resources followed by an in-person field assessment by the firm’s senior botanist.

Historical aerial photographs, Weeks said, show that the site has been cleared since sometime prior to 1938, and since then, it’s been used for agricultural production, meaning there are no native plant communities onsite. What its botanist later discovered, she said, is that “generally the site is pretty degraded as a result of historic land use.”

Northfield City Council met for nearly five hours Oct. 5 to consider a petition to require developers to order an environmental assessment worksheet for their proposed development of the Paulson property. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“The site doesn’t necessarily provide high-quality forage habitat for the rusty patched bumble bee,” she said.

“You can tell that to the bumble bee,” an audience member mumbled.

While there are some spring ephemerals, she said, those mostly occur in “smaller pockets right along the edges of the property,” a forested boundary, which the developers said they are planning on maintaining. “So a lot of that area may not even be impacted.”

Later in the evening, Peterson White said that her understanding of EAWs is that their proper function usually pertains to things like former dry cleaning sites or places where gas tanks might be buried.

"This is not a native space," she said. "I do not view this land as a treasure of natural space, as it has been framed to be."

Wrapping up

Forty-five more minutes of public comment took place after the developers’ presentation, in which residents mostly advocated for the ordering of the EAW and disputed the environmental consulting firm’s results, some suggesting the group was biased since it was funded by the developer. Some who spoke, though, claimed to have never seen the bee on the property and disputed the necessity of the EAW.

“This is a really precise thing we’re called to do tonight, and a lot of the testimony I think has really failed to see that,” Councilor Suzie Nakasian said. “The question of ‘significant environmental impact’ to me comes down to the word ‘significant,’ and not ‘we must,’ and ‘we may,’ and ‘you must’ and ‘you better’ and ‘808 of us’ and then veiled threats.”

Erosion control project will help send cleaner water down the Cannon
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It started out as a simple request, backed by a series of photos shot after a heavy rain. Neighbors Ben and Rachel Streiff and Pete Cook moved to Circle Lake to be close to nature, enjoy outdoor recreation and take in the sunsets. But a growing gully between their two properties threatened that enjoyment.

When the gully persisted after heavy rains washed away their own attempts and a landscaper’s efforts, the neighbors knew it was time to contact the Rice Soil & Water Conservation District.

The 837-acre lake, added to Minnesota’s impaired waters list in 2006 due to excess nutrients, sits on the fringe of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, roughly 7 miles southeast of Lonsdale. The lake is hyper-eutrophic — very nutrient-rich, with frequent and severe algal blooms and low water clarity. It’s also shallow, with a maximum depth of 14 feet. Houses line its shore. The adjacent land is in agricultural production.

Located in the Wolf Creek subwatershed, Circle Lake outlets into Wolf Creek. From there it flows into the Cannon River at Dundas, and eventually the Mississippi River at Red Wing. Thus, soil erosion and its excess nutrients entering Circle Lake affects the water quality of many downstream in the Cannon River Watershed.

An active lake association was part of what attracted Ben and Rachel Streiff to Circle Lake. The Circle Lake Association established the Circle Lake Improvement District in 2019 to generate money for projects that move the lake closer to removal from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) impaired waters list. To Ben Streiff, the lake association’s hard work to improve the lake seemed rare. He wanted to be a part of it.

“Growing up, my aunt and uncle lived along Mink Lake near Maple Lake, and when I was younger, they did a project and it drastically improved the water. The lake became crystal clear, with bass and sunfish. It was always in my mind with a lake association that’s active and has the lake’s best interest in mind.”

Good things happen when individuals work together with a common goal, Streiff added.

Rice SWCD technician Emmie Scheffler received Ben Streiff’s email request. She served as the liaison among the property owners and Chris Nelson, an engineering technician with the Southeast SWCD Technical Support Joint Powers Board (JPB).

A heavy rain in June 2019 prompted the landowners to contact Rice SWCD.

The land around the drainage tile continued to erode, forming a gully between the Streiff and Cook properties. Sections of the tile were missing or not reinforced.

While both landowners had attempted to stabilize the gully, the erosion continued, and mini sinkholes continued to form. Eventually, the draw between them deteriorated to the point where the retaining wall on Cook’s property and sediment along both yards were washing into the lake. The gully was more than they could repair. A landscaper fixed the site, but subsequent rains washed away the repairs.

Meanwhile, the erosion worsened.

Nelson described a sediment plume of soil that entered the lake. Led by Nelson, the JPB determined the best option was to replace the failing tile.

The COVID-19 pandemic added complexity to the project. After Nelson designed it and a contractor was selected, the homeowners learned of statewide PVC piping and materials shortages. The cost of materials fluctuated from $9 to $32 per linear foot. The result: A project redesign.

Frustrated, the homeowners contemplated waiting one year. But after talking to Scheffler and Nelson, they decided to move forward.

Nelson redesigned the project, which was then re-bid. Ultimately, the landowners selected a new contractor. The new design incorporated materials that were more readily available and reasonably priced. Nelson reduced the scope of the project, resulting in fewer, more heavily reinforced joints. New materials connected to existing systems. The redesign met the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) specifications.

Streiff said the new design worked out better — it preserved the privacy they greatly appreciated by retaining a few trees and lilacs that otherwise would have been removed.

“Working with the SWCD was a good experience. We were happy to have them on our side because they know what to look for. We tried ourselves; didn’t work. Hired a landscaper; didn’t work. It’s nice to have an expert in the field explain how it should be and what would work,” said Streiff.

Work finished on July 10. The project’s estimated annual pollution reductions include 2.1 tons of sediment and 2.1 pounds of phosphorus. It’s estimated to curb soil erosion by slightly more than 6 tons a year and will help send cleaner water down the Cannon River.

The $19,225 cost of the project was covered by $15,740 in local capacity funds (a direct Clean Water Fund appropriation from the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources [BWSR] to SWCDs) from two fiscal years for construction, plus technical support from Rice SWCD and the Southeast SWCD Technical Support JPB; and a $3,485 landowner and Circle Lake Improvement District match.

After 8 years, board OKs comp plan, seeks environmental review of planned commercial zone
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After more than eight years of discussion, planning and public input, Rice County has a new comprehensive plan.

The plan, which outlines a vision for growth and land use in the county over the next decade or so, was approved unanimously Tuesday. But as with much of the plan’s meandering path, it very nearly took an unexpected detour.

Commissioner Galen Malecha, who represents much of Northfield, kicked off discussion by saying that he was voting vote no to the plan because it was lacking in areas important to his constituency.

“I would have liked to have seen more teeth in its sustainability chapter … and a more aggressive housing portion,” he said.

Commissioner Steve Underdahl, who along with Malecha, sits on the county’s Sustainability Committee, agreed that the comprehensive plan needs beefing up when it comes to sustainability. He also expressed concerns about a planned commercial and industrial zone along Interstate 35 in the northern portion of the county, but instead of further delaying the approval approval process, Underdahl suggested authorizing an Alternative Urban Areawide Review that would act as almost an addendum to the comp plan.

For a moment it appeared as if the board would approve the comp plan contingent on the development of a review, but after Environmental Services Director Julie Runkel recommended commissioners take time to craft a thorough request for proposals seeking companies interested in conducting the review, the board voted to approve the plan.

Malecha said he was satisfied with the verbal agreement to develop a request for proposals.

According to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, the AUAR process a type of environmental review “to understand how different development scenarios will affect the environment of their community before the development occurs. The process is designed to look at the cumulative impacts of anticipated development scenarios within a given geographic area. … Environmental analysis information from an AUAR can be used to inform local planning and zoning decisions.”

Tuesday’s vote came two weeks after the board wrapped up a required public hearing in which a number of residents criticized plans to rezone several hundred acres along the interstate for commercial and residential development. Much of the land was the site of a proposed 466-acre car club and track, withdrawn in late 2019 after the developer lost rights to several of the properties involved.

Many of the same residents also questioned that proposal, finding it would permanently alter the rural nature of the community, harm wildlife and deplete valuable resources.

“I don’t understand why you would rezone an area with no vision of what belongs there,” Kathleen Doran Norton, a former Bridgewater Township supervisor said Sept. 28.

Bagley Avenue resident Elizabeth Heigl, also at the public hearing, asked the board to consider existing residents and the nearby community when deciding how and whether to approve commercial develop in the area.

“I don’t want a factory next door to me,” she said. “I beg you, please, please, use your resources wisely. Consider the people of the county that you serve.”