Sensitive site desired for public, private use

A 40-acre plot of land, currently owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), has the potential of housing a new school bus maintenance facility for Independent School District 622, providing new athletic fields and environmental study area for nearby Hill-Murray High School, servicing both proposals in some combination or neither at all.

The decision for what will happen with the largely unused property at the intersection of Highway 120 and Highway 5 in Maplewood is one that a number of groups are interested in, including the cities of North St. Paul and Oakdale, though it will most likely not be made for a few months. Recently, however, the Maplewood City Council heard presentations from the three most interested parties at this time, each with a proposal and plan for the environmentally sensitive land.

“The only thing that all three proposals agree on is the environmental component,” said Ron Cockriel, a Maplewood resident and environmentalist whose least-invasive proposal called for no development, an end to burial and dumping practices that cause degradation and nurturing the possibly 35 acres of wetland or former wetland back to health.

“I see (the property) as a link to three different cities and watersheds,” continued Cockriel who hopes to create what he calls the “MnDOT Marsh” with his proposal.

Opposing options

The state Department of Transportation views the property at least in part as an excess right-of-way that they are willing to sell, preferably for public use, according to Frank Pafko, an environmental officer with MnDOT who also spoke at the June 11 City Council meeting.

“Our priority in looking at re-conveyance of our property when we no longer need it ... is for a public purpose,” Pafko said following the meeting. “The bus garage (proposal) is the only public purpose and we have been negotiating with them longer.”

In fact, according to Greg Hein, business director for District 622, the idea of relocating or expanding the downtown North St. Paul school bus garage to the Maplewood site has been under development since 2000. Hill-Murray President Joe Peschges admitted to the council that his school’s proposal to purchase the property for athletic and academic needs was still in its early stages because the school only began investigating the possibilities a few months ago (when the results of an area study determined that the school would stay in Maplewood).

But both Peschges and Cockriel remain staunchly opposed to the busing facility, primarily on the grounds that the 75 buses the school district proposes to add will contribute to more traffic and more air pollution for the area northeast of Hill-Murray School.

“Whether they need a new bus depot or not is their issue,” Peschges said later. “But I do know that placing a bus terminal is not acceptable. I can’t picture kids outside on soccer fields or football fields breathing the fumes from 70 to 80 buses.”

But Hein’s presentation to the council explained how the busing facility would occupy no more than five acres of land in the north quadrant of the property and that as many as eight acres could still be provided to Hill-Murray in the southern part of the site. He went on to assert that the bus proposal would serve the cities of Maplewood, Oakdale and North St. Paul (with whom the district has specifically partnered in the effort to find a location for bus maintenance).

“(Our plan) serves all District 622 students ... eases traffic for Hill-Murray because the North High buses will be gone before the Hill-Murray buses and expands the 622 property’s tax base,” Hein told the council. “We came up with a joint plan to accommodate all interested parties.”

In response, Peschges said the Hill-Murray proposal would benefit all three cities as well by providing more green space for North St. Paul and Maplewood and by sharing the proposed athletic fields with neighboring Oakdale, in need of such amenities. Incidentally, Cockriel said he agrees with “80 percent” of the Hill-Murray proposal (he would like to see a little less land used for development).

But Cockriel was definitively unsatisfied with Hein’s plan, and reminded the council that the District 622 School Board have not yet approved the proposal, effectively making it unsupported by the school district itself, he said. Indeed, at its most recent meeting, the school board opted to consider the issue at a later date, allowing more time for review. However, Scott Duddeck, school board member and North St. Paul fire chief, was asked to comment from the audience and he spoke in favor of the bus garage option.

Eco priorities

Still, environmental concerns dominated the conversation July 11, and the property’s current owner was definitely not exempt. All three presentations mentioned the degradation the site has experienced over the years and, according to Peschges and Cockriel in particular, at least some of the devaluing can be attributed to the approximately 600 deer carcasses disposed on the property yearly through MnDOT.

“I am environmentally convinced that, if the owners would quit doing what they’re doing, (the land) would reclaim itself,” Cockriel told the council.

Pafko admitted to “instances” of animal composting, but said the department has ended that practice indefinitely. He also maintained that a majority of the problem stems from when part of the land was graded out for a roadway project in the 1960’s, since abandoned, and that MnDOT’s subsequent damaging activities have been limited to that already disturbed portion of the property.

For the Maplewood City Council, environmental concerns held sway over all others when it came to their response to the proposals. Although they had a wide range of questions for all three presenters, the council focused its advice on beefing up and fleshing out the environmental components of each plan.

“If there was ever a spot I would consider conserving without development, this is it,” Council Member Will Rossbach told the assembly. “Whatever proposal comes in had better be the most advanced environmental design we’ve ever seen.”

The interested parties will continue to work closely with Maplewood Public Works Director Chuck Ahl and hope to bring their proposals before the council again in the coming months.

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