The Anoka City Council has made all the approvals necessary for a high-end housing development to go ahead in the city, despite a last minute attempt to delay the project.
At 3 p.m. Monday, just hours before the council was scheduled to vote on a long list of items necessary for the Rum River Shores housing development, the city was served with a notice of intervention.
The document was filed under the state’s Environmental Rights Act on behalf of the Friends of the Scenic Rum River, a non-profit group soon to be incorporated, organized to protect and preserve the natural resources of the Rum River and adjoining land.
The group is represented by attorney Thomas Casey, who requested the council table the items related to the housing development until the Aug. 19 meeting.
According to The Friends of the Scenic Rum River, the developer’s land use applications and the land sale “is likely to cause pollution impairment or destruction of the … air, water land and other natural resources.”
Specific examples of pollution or destruction were not listed in the legal document.
Riverbank stabilization biggest concern in intervention
The group’s concerns focus on a plan to stabilize 700 feet of bank along the Rum River, that would include the removal of all trees and vegetation and regrading of the 30-foot bank to a 3:1 slope. A walking trail a third of a way up the newly graded bank would also be constructed.
The plan was designed by the Anoka Conservation District after significant erosion was discovered on the city-owned property, protected under the Anoka Nature Preserve’s conservation easement.
This easement also protects 200 acres nearby from development.
According to the notice of intervention, the group feels the addition of a walking trail along the newly graded riverbank will interfere with the ability of native flora and fauna to be re-established.
Anoka residents Erik Skogquist and Mark Petersen spoke on behalf of the Friends of the Scenic Rum River.
“The primary thrust … is we have not had a chance to review the hard black and white plans of what the erosion control is going to be,” Petersen said.
He defended the oak trees, more than a century old, on the riverbank that will be cut down as part of the riverbank stabilization.
“If we don’t speak for them, no one else will,” Petersen said of the trees.
The council went ahead and unanimously approved the preliminary plat, final plat and development agreement for Rum River Shores, on behalf of Landmark Development, which is working with Hanson Builders and Jonathan Homes on a 44-unit, single-family housing development on 22 acres alongside the Anoka Nature Preserve, west of the Rum River Library.
The homes will range in value from $400,000 to $650,000.
A dock system on the banks of the Rum River was also approved.
Changes were also made to the city’s zoning and comprehensive plan to rezone a portion of the land, which had originally been identified for townhomes, to single-family residential.
The lot size in the sensitive development district was also reduced to 10,000 square feet from the original 12,500 square feet.
With each approval, the council did consider the allegations that the development may harm the environment.
With the riverbank in particular, Mayor Phil Rice said he felt the plan for erosion control laid out by the Anoka Conservation District would benefit the environment, not harm it.
It is the conservation district, which manages the conservation easement on the nature preserve property, recommending the grading as a way to stabilize the bank, he said.
“It is the holder of the conservation easement, not the city, recommending this,” Rice said.
But Skogquist said there hasn’t been enough time for people to understand the impact of Rum River Shores.
“At the last minute there is a lot to digest that affects not just the development but the area around the development,” Skogquist said.
Rice said the city has been talking about this particular area for six years.
“The fact that we have a plan now that’s different than the plan we had two years ago – that’s the product of the process of development,” Rice said.
Support of agencies
Councilmember Jeff Weaver was confident in moving ahead, despite the notice of intervention.
Plans connected with the project, including the bank stabilization and storm water control have been reviewed by the Anoka Conservation District, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Lower Rum River Watershed Management Organization.
“To me, they really set the tone for a lot of the allegations in this complaint,” Weaver said. “I don’t know where else you go past those governmental agencies to do the right thing.”
Jennifer Shillcox, supervisor of the DNR’s land use programs unit, recently responded to local concerns about the approach to the bank stabilization.
On behalf of DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Shillcox wrote that while the DNR shared a local resident’s concern about the loss of trees on the riverbank, “we feel that in this case there are extenuating circumstances that justify the grading and tree removal. The riverbank is seriously undercut by erosion at this location and left as is, would almost certainly result in bank failure at some point in the future… in which case the trees and large quantities of soil would end up in the river.”
Houses not the main concern
According to Skogquist, there is little dispute over the actual housing development, but the concern lies in the grading and reforestation of the riverbank.
But with few options, Skogquist said the group would work to petition for a referendum on the land sale, in accordance with the city’s charter, in an effort to buy time.
The city is expected to close on the sale of the property to Landmark Development later this month. It also granted approvals for the contractor to go in and start working on site grading immediately.
Roger Larson of Ramsey called on the city to do a better job of enforcing the no wake zone along the Rum River, which would help to slow the erosion of the riverbank, along with other damaging things like rope swings.
“There has been no enforcement on these kinds of things,” Larson said.
He also said clear cutting the bank was a violation of what the conservation easement set out to protect.
Call for choices
Longtime Anoka resident Bill Mueller made a passionate plea to the council to investigate other options for riverbank stabilization that was met with applause by the audience.
“I feel our city is better than going with just one plan,” Mueller said. “We should know we are not wasting our environment and our tax dollars.”
He said the riverbank will look “hideous for years” after it is graded and new trees and shrubs are planted.
But Councilmember Mark Freeburg did not buy the allegations that the housing development would harm the environment, he said.
“I get a little embarrassed when people use the environment to stop a project they don’t like,” Freeburg said.
Much of the criticism of the project has come from residents who live across the river from the Anoka Nature Preserve.
Once the bank is clear cut, graded and replanted, it will take decades for their wild and scenic view to return.
Anoka resident and longtime Housing and Redevelopment Authority member Merrywayne Elvig said trees were also taken down on the west side of the Rum River to make room for riverfront housing.
“Better we have these people paying taxes in Anoka,” she said.
The city has long been looking for an opportunity to add move-up housing and this is the first development of this size in more than 20 years, according to Economic Development Manager Erik Thorvig.
The city will fund $100,000 of the $275,000 riverbank stabilization project. The remainder of the costs will be covered by in-kind labor and equipment from the developer.
Larry Nelson of Ramsey, among others, asked the city do more official environmental studies of the project and also asked for an engineering study of the bank stabilization.
A number of people have called on the city to take a less invasive approach to stabilizing the bank in order to preserve the oak trees.
“Why do you have to grade it and take the trees down,” said Anoka resident Barb Thurston. “A good compromise would be rip rap. When you go down the river it’s wild and scenic and you are going to change that.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at firstname.lastname@example.org