Riverbank stabilization plan draws steep criticism

An erosion control plan that could drastically change the look of the bank on a portion of the Rum River has drawn criticism from area residents.

A plan to stabilize the Rum River shoreline adjacent to the Anoka Nature Preserve has been met with criticism from those who live across the river from the eroding bank.Photo/Anoka Conservation District
A plan to stabilize the Rum River shoreline adjacent to the Anoka Nature Preserve has been met with criticism from those who live across the river from the eroding bank. Photo/Anoka Conservation District

On behalf of the local group Friends of the Anoka Nature Preserve, Jeanne Wilkinson shared adamant opposition in front of a packed city council chamber July 15 to a proposal that could see the trees removed from 800 feet of shoreline on the upper Rum River to allow for grading, stabilization and the addition of a paved walking and biking trail.

“The river has natural ways of controlling water levels and quality,” she said. “Why approve a project under the guise of erosion control and destroy 1,000 feet of shoreline,” said Wilkinson, who co-chairs the group with Tim Sheie.

She owns riverfront property in the Dunham Oaks neighborhood on the east side of the Rum River, across from the protected Anoka Nature Preserve, a 200 acre parcel protected from development by a conservation easement, along with a 100-foot wide swath along the shoreline of the Rum River.

The Rum River in 1978 was added Minnesota’s Wild and Scenic River program, offering special protections and rules that can differ from statewide shoreline practices.

Next month the Anoka City Council will vote on a proposal to stabilize the bank being cut away by erosion that would include the removal of all vegetation along the shoreline of this portion of the river and the 30 foot bank would be regraded with a 3:1 slope to protect from erosion, according to Chris Lord of the Anoka Conservation District.

Once a walking and biking path is constructed in the middle of the slope, the tiers above and below would be replanted with native vegetation.

While there are some invasive species like buckthorn that would be removed, this stretch also includes several heritage oak trees.

The proposal is coupled with plans for a high-end housing development nearby.

Landmark Development with Hanson Builders and Jonathan Homes is working on a deal to build 44 upscale, single family homes on the 22.5 acres the city owns adjacent to the nature preserve. A purchase agreement is in place, and is waiting on the approval of the development agreement and plats to be executed.

Although after Monday’s meeting and significant concern from the public, city staff were meeting with the Landmark team to work through issues and the direction of the development, according to City Manager Tim Cruikshank. As of Wednesday, Landmark had not withdrawn any of its proposals, Cruikshank said.

While the developer is not pushing for the bank stabilization, once homes are built nearby it will make it more difficult, and more expensive, to fix erosion problems, said Lord.

City staff and Anoka’s advisory commissions has been in discussions with both the Anoka Conservation District and the Department of Natural Resources on how to best protect the riverbank.

Wilkinson said her group is not opposed to the housing development, but wants to preserve the trees along the shoreline and bluff. She is calling on the city to explore less invasive options to stabilize the toe of the river.

“There are attractive, non destructive solutions,” she said.

It will take decades for the riverbank to revive it’s “up north” look and feel if the land is clear cut.

“It’s a tough situation with bad options to choose from,” Lord said.

While no one can predict when the cut bank could fail, it’s likely someday it will, Lord said.

“I know I will hate the look of that bank for the next 10 or 15 years,” said Lord, who described himself as a ‘tree hugger.’

“But 50 years from now? This isn’t just about us and our timeline but the timeline of the conservation easement,” he said.

Wilkinson and the Friends of the Anoka Nature Preserve would prefer a less invasive option that would leave the walking trail up on the bluff and reinforce the toe of the river, where the water meets the shoreline.

“We would like the light of day to shine on this project,” Wilkinson said.

While there have been a number of work session meetings and city council agenda items related to the housing development, Monday was the first time for the council to consider extensive riverbank stabilization.

The proposal is for the city to fund $100,000 of the $275,000 project. The remainder of the costs will be covered by the developer though labor, equipment use and soil disposal.

A decision is expected to be made by the council Aug. 5.

The proposal was also considered and approved by the Anoka Conservation District’s board of supervisors and has been reviewed by DNR staff.

Lord said once the houses are built nearby the cost to stabilize the bank will go up astronomically, because of limited access.

“It’s as cheap as it ever will be,” Lord said, estimating the value of the project at $400,000 – significantly above the current cost.

Wilkinson and the Friends the Anoka Nature Preserve also offered a third option – do nothing and leave the bank as it is.

But Lord doesn’t agree with waiting for the bank to fail because the housing development will severely limit the access.

“Then we’ll lose the trail someday or you’ll put in a really tall retaining wall some day that won’t be pretty from the Rum River and won’t be cheap,” he said.

The stabilization plan would also require the approval of the Department of Natural Resources Commissioner.

Opposition to docks

There was also a long list of area property owners who voiced opposition about the proposal to add a public dock that would also contain six slips for lease.

Larry Nelson of Ramsey lives across the river and the docks would be visible from his house. He said he lives on his own bed and every ere branch and bit of debris that comes down the river hits his dock and his pontoon. So he estimates the city’s maintenance costs on the dock will be high.

“You are going to be replacing that dock a couple of times a year,” Nelson said.

Grant Heino, who also lives in Ramsey and looks across the river at the Anoka Nature Preserve Area, is also opposed to making changes to the riverbank that he says will affect his enjoyment of this wild and scenic area.

Heino complained of drug use, nude swimming and foul language being used late at night at the small beach on the east side of the river.

While the idea had originally been for those slips to be designated for lease to Rum River Shores’ homeowners association for at least the first eight years, that idea was not supported by the entire city council.

Both Mayor Phil Rice and Councilmember Jeff Weaver voiced concern over making those slips available to an exclusive group, which is not the case at a similar city-owned docking system near the boat launch on the lower Rum River or on the system that will be installed next year north of city hall.

The dock proposal is also at odds with the recommendation from the Anoka Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which recommended a dock not be put on the property within the Anoka Nature Preserve.

The park board felt there was limited access to the dock and a lack of off street parking and loading, according to Boardmember Erik Skogquist.

“This is a little different park than Akin Riverside Park,” said Skogquist of the current Rum River location where the city owns a public dock and leases private slips. “A lot of stuff doesn’t sit right and that’s why as a park board we felt this wasn’t wise at this time.”

But Merrywayne Elvig, Anoka resident and longtime member of the Anoka Housing and Redevelopment Authority, reminded the council and the audience that times change and things look very different along the river now, compared to a half-century ago.

Elvig said she taught swimming lessons at the Rice Street Beach in the 1950s. Lifesaving sessions included canoe trips on the Rum and Mississippi rivers.

“Talk about wild and scenic then,” she said, when the river was lined with farm fields and only a couple of cottages between Anoka and St. Francis.

Neighborhoods like Dunham Oaks and the houses along Rum River Drive did not exist. There were no docks or pontoon boats.

“The west side is not wild and scenic anymore,” Elvig said. “Why can’t the east side be just as valuable as the west side? Let people live on both sides of the river.”

Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]