by Eric Hagen
As the calendar turns to a new year, the city of Ham Lake continues to work on a project that will bring a service road to the east side of Highway 65 between 153rd and 159th avenues.
Assuming the remaining process of purchasing rights of way for the road and storm water ponds goes according to plan, the city will have a contractor hired about six months from now for construction this year, according to City Engineer Tom Collins.
Ham Lake will be receiving $1.3 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to essentially cover all the construction costs, Collins said.
The challenge for the city has been working through a federally-mandated review process, all because a small segment of the road crosses into Ham Lake Park.
When Anoka County owned Ham Lake Park, it received $150,000 in 2002 to construct new trails, parking lots, restrooms, baseball fields, an observation dock, roads, landscaping and new signs. The money came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Act, which is called LAWCON. The National Parks Service manages this program.
The county conveyed Ham Lake Park to the city in the fall of 2004 and the city began applying for MnDOT funding around the same time to construct a service road. After receiving the $1.3 million grant in 2009, the city became aware that the road would require a lengthier review process through the LAWCON program because the road would impact a portion of a park that the federal grant helped improve several years prior.
After debating the merits of different road alignments after completing a $28,000 city-paid study, the chosen design was that the road would only separate a 5.68-acre portion of the southwest edge of the park from the 120-acre Ham Lake Park. This area is mostly wetland and is not used by any people, according to Collins.
Because this land was being taken out of the park, Ham Lake was required to purchase property of equal value to replace this lost park land. Ham Lake came up with an option and paid an assessor $9,000 to evaluate the property value. The LAWCON review process also required a second appraiser to review the first appraiser’s work. The city hired the second appraiser for $3,000.
The city determined that a 2,840 square-foot piece of upland was all that was needed. This is considerably less than one acre. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre. Collins said that the value of the 5.68-acre parcel was very low because it was mostly wetland.
RFC Engineering, the city’s contracted engineering firm that Collins works for, received correspondence from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) informing them that the National Parks Service determined this was not an adequate replacement area because there was not equal recreational value between the 5.68-acre property and the 2,840 square-foot property.
City Attorney Wilbur Dorn assumes the city’s proposal was rejected because the replacement land was so much smaller compared with the parcel being split off from the rest of the park by the service road and because the wetland could be used by wildlife.
Therefore, Collins said the city came up with a second option of buying three acres of land, of which only 0.22 acres is upland and the rest is wetland.
According to Collins, no buildings would be impacted by this land purchase. The city would be purchasing this land from three parcels just north of the 5.68-acre parcel that is being segmented from Ham Lake Park because of the service road.
Collins said the problem for the city is that it would have to pay for this extra land. The city can only use the $1.3 million MnDOT grant for road construction, not for land purchases.
According to Dorn, because most of the three-acres is wetland, he hopes the city can work with the two property owners to acquire the property. Instead of paying for it outright, Dorn said they may be able to work out an arrangement in which the property owners are not assessed any of the new road construction costs.
“It’s going to be a nice road for the businesses along there…” Dorn said. “So I think we do have some negotiating tools here.”
The DNR contact that RFC Engineering had been working with stated she would try to get this new land conversion option approved by the National Parks Service, but could not guarantee it.
If the National Parks Service approves, Collins said the next step would be for the city attorney to negotiate land purchases with the property owners.
“Pretty soon that $1.3 million isn’t going to be worth very much if we keep dealing with other government agencies that throw wrenches in the gears,” Councilmember Gary Kirkeide said. “This has something to do with streamlining government, right?”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org