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Saint Paul rules no need for Lilydale Park EIS despite serious remaining questions

Despite serious questions, City of Saint Paul denies Lilydale Park EIS. Questions remain.

Despite recent questions that have arisen, the City of Saint Paul decided to deny reason exists for an Environmental Impact Statement on their Lilydale Park development plan.

The official announcement was made Aug 10 (over a week late and thus a violation of Minnesota EQB rules) that the their hired consultant's environmental analysis showed no reason for further review. This came despite new information that Parks & Rec staff had been ordered to rework their wetland and other data describing impacts from a new roadway, parking lots and buildings. Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota DNR and other agencies have confirmed they have remaining questions along with the numerous citizens who wrote or attended a public hearing in June to question the city's plan.

Read Park's responses to judge for yourselves whether this was a fair, democratic process with Lilydale Park's best interests at heart or whether it was the fox guarding the hen house:http://www.stpaul.gov/ DocumentCenter/View/58769
WARNING: LONG, SERIOUS POST, but here's background detail re: the recent questions that have arisen:

Saint Paul Parks officials are facing new, important questions even as the 30-day official deadline for response to public calls for an environmental impact statement (EIS) on their Lilydale Park construction plans draws near. City officials have already postponed indefinitely a Planning Commission meeting on a variance request regarding wetland impacts while state and federal agencies are looking closer at their scientific data.

Army Corps officials wrote to Parks this week ordering them to reexamine their wetland delineations which had shown no impacts from most of a proposed new, wider roadway and a new parking lot. A site visit by the feds revealed at least one and possibly two wetland areas nearby that the city had not shown on its engineering maps. This is important both environmentally because of the increasing scarcity of wetlands and because federal law requires mitigating impacts such as a 2-for-1 replacement and other potentially major costs.

Similarly, the city has reportedly run into problems with the state over its modeling showing no impacts on the Mississippi River floodplain from their mounding and proposed building(s) on top of the still-decomposing, gas-venting Lilydale Landfill. Parks has renamed this “Pickerel Clearing” or the “Gathering Place” in their plan but critics know it as the Humpty Dumpty plan.

Semantics aside, Minnesota DNR examiners reportedly had issues with the city's scientific data on the plan's floodplain impacts. As a result, Parks officials may have to request special waivers from FEMA and other regulatory agencies. This is further problematic because Saint Paul is already under a zero tolerance order from federal officials for any increased impacts anywhere in the city on the 100-year floodplain.

These issues may also prove troubling as the city is forced as the Responsible Governmental Unit (RGU) under Minnesota law to explain why an EIS should not be undertaken for the proposed Lilydale project. Parks' consultant on an EAW released in June had found no major issues in these and many other areas questioned at a public hearing and in letters received by a July 11 deadline. Now it is the city which must officially respond based on evidence.

Further research into the wetland issue reveals more questions about Parks planners' claims that their proposals are all fitting with the definition of Lilydale as a “natural resources based park.” Their roadway engineering plan also included several topographic measurements showing depth below the level which would appear to trigger state wetland permitting. 

Any project in Lilydale Regional Park involving work below 695 feet sea level must be evaluated by the MN-DNR for wetland or other environmental impacts.

This information had not been sent to the DNR by the city as of beginning of this week. City staff were well aware of the 695' DNR regulatory threshhold since they cited it in a 2011 report to the MPCA as partial reason the previous year for halting removal of asbestos and other contaminants from of the Lilydale Landfill with up to 16' more refuse still remaining underground. Interestingly, in that February 2011 work they began filling in for a new roadbed alignment even before Lilydale Task Force and public hearings on the plan were completed.

Parks staff exhibited a curious attitude about environmental regulations in Lilydale Park even during construction of the existing bike/pedestrian pathway which very clearly breached what is known at Wetland E - just northwest of the current proposed development site. Their 1994 documents justified the breach, without mitigation, by arguing that only about 20 linear feet of the asphalt path would likely be flooded each year. They also suggested that moving the trail around the wetland be a hardship for parks maintenance and would somehow greatly reduce access to the Mississippi River for fishing and other activities.

That whopper somehow wasn't caught, with the results today apparent in the form of a trail that has likely seen more ducks than fishing since it never comes within 50' of the river and which is so regularly flooded that bicyclists have created their own dirt path detour around the wetland. For some this may add to the fun of also bouncing over sinkholes where the current asphalt bike path already crosses a small portion of the Lilydale Landfill. How Parks' proposed new roadway crossing several hundred yards of that same area will avoid a similar fate has not been publicly explained.

Regardless, the previously-described environmental violation is not addressed in Park's new plan for Lilydale. Maps interestingly show construction of a new bike path halting exactly at the entry point to Wetland E with the city apparently choosing to use its “grandfather” rights over “natural-resources-based” priorities. It is yet one more example of curious priorities that include Park's obsession with a first phase of construction that does not include the roadway from Harriet Island going west – with several obvious major safety and erosion problem areas reducing park access for bicyclists and people with disabilities.

These and other decisions are however now the call of the Responsible Governmental Unit – in this case the Saint Paul Mayor and City Council. While Parks staff has controlled discussion thus far, the legal requirements now demand a higher level of scrutiny. Hopefully the RGU will begin seeing their definition of responsibility rise to a higher level in Lilydale Park which has been uniquely impacted but ultimately blessed by its acceptance of Mother Nature's ebbs and flows.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Donald Lee January 29, 2013 at 08:04 PM
It sounds like despite quite a few rules and regulations about development in this flood plain, if the city wants to evade the rules, and no one is watching, it will do so. I'm glad someone is holding these officials feet to the fire.

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