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Oakes Park Lift Station: How’d We Get Here?

Patch sat down with City Engineer John Bradford to better understand the process that led to the controversial project.

The decision to put a lift station in sparked swift criticism from neighbors who both disagreed with the decision to put sewer infrastructure in a park and felt they’d been left out of the planning process.

Hopkins Patch sat down with to better understand the process and the Metropolitan Council used and why they made the decisions they did.

That process is specific to the lift station in its details. But in its broad brushstrokes, it echoes the steps for any project undertaken in the city. Whenever a community undertakes a major project, it will face many of the same challenges.

“The idea is how do we best use public money, how do we get the infrastructure the city needs—and you can’t make everybody happy,” Bradford said.

Here’s what happened.

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Identifying needed repairs

At any given time, Hopkins has numerous projects in the pipeline. Its plan for street improvements, alone, goes out five years, and Bradford has another five years planned in his head.

There are many other projects besides streets. The city’s Capital Improvement plan is a 105-page document that contains all the expected projects over the next five years that will cost more than $10,000.

That only covers Hopkins, though. The Oakes Park lift station is being done by the Met Council, which covers a seven-county area. So its plans are orders of magnitude bigger. Amid the demands of daily life, it’s nearly impossible for everyday residents to keep tabs on all the projects taking place and find out which ones are headed their way.

In the case of the lift station, the need for a new one became apparent 10 years ago when the station across the street from broke, polluting Minnehaha Creek.

 

Finding the right sites

When the Met Council went out looking for a place to put the new lift station, it wasn’t just looking for any old property. Like most governments, it prefers land that is open and available for sale. It doesn’t want to buy out homes or businesses. It doesn’t want to seize property through eminent domain.

Both of those routes would add to the cost, require legal action and be politically difficult—not least because they go against Hopkins’ own goals of preserving businesses and single-family homes.

The Met Council eventually decided to investigate nine properties (seen in the map above).

In examining the sites, it had a process for submitting feedback. But Bradford doesn’t think planners mailed notices to residents near each site.

“You really have to be kind of sophisticated to find it and comment on it,” he said.

Hopkins doesn’t usually involve residents in the process this early either because it winds up pitting neighbors near each site against each other, Bradford said. Whatever path planners choose to pursue, someone is going to be upset. So it’s better to avoid tensions by bringing a concrete proposal to residents most likely to be affected.

“We know that no matter where we put it, people are going to be mad,” he said. “We don’t want to have a meeting where we have the residents near Cottageville Park in a room and the residents around Oakes Park in a room and now they get to fight about who gets the lift station. There isn’t a resolution that can come from that.”

 

Ruling out options

In any case, Bradford said, “90 percent of this is a technical exercise.” Staff, operating under the direction of the city manager, typically investigate and discuss options before taking it to policy-making bodies and asking what they think.

“We understand the general directions that our councils want to go in, so we try to create win-win situations for our governing bodies,” he said.

In the case of the lift station, the Met Council ruled out outlying properties (options 2, 8 and 9) because it would cost too much to extend the lines there. When workers have to bury a 30-inch pipe 25 or 30 feet deep, costs add up fast.

“It’s a very, very expensive, messy proposition,” he said.

That left planners focused on the Blake Road corridor sites, but even those weren’t all acceptable. The original site (option 1) was too small. The Cottageville Park site (option 7) would incur costly add-ons from digging under the creek. On other sites (options 3 and 6), the watershed district worried about how close the lift station would be to the creek. And amid all this planning, took one of the sites off the table (option 4) by starting a restaurant there.

That left the Oakes Park site (option 5)—a location the city still wasn’t thrilled with as late as 2011.

“As a matter of fact, we were very against Oakes Park initially,” Bradford said. “We were like, ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Cottageville is closer. We want to expand Cottageville Park. Let’s put it there.’”

But with the reports leaning heavily toward an Oakes Park option, Met Council staff sat down with Hopkins staff and asked what it would take to put the lift station there. The two sides tentatively agreed on that’s moving forward now.

 

Bringing it to the Public

With that plan on the table, Hopkins staff brought the proposal to the Park Board in October 2011—launching the public part of the process. After the Park Board offered feedback, they brought the idea to a City Council work session in February (which is when Patch picked up on it).

With the approval of council members, the city sent out letters to residents that same month notifying them of a March meeting to discuss the project.

The project had been under discussion for about a decade. The Met Council identified the benefits of the Oakes Park site at least has far back as 2009. The Park Board and City Council had both reviewed the idea. Patch even .

But for most people, the notices were the first they’d heard about the project. Officials didn’t reach out to specific homeowners until that point, and the demands of daily life are just too much for individuals to keep up with every project that might affect them.

In retrospect, Bradford does think the city should have notified more homeowners about the project. (Some who were outside the radius the city set for notification, but still within an affected townhome association, thought they should have been notified.)

But he added that the city has to balance residents’ desire for notification with the need to avoid inundating them with projects that are too far out to attract interest. Even with street projects, the city will typically have no more than 5 percent of the affected residents show up for informational meetings.

 That didn’t alleviate the frustration residents showed at , where the city signed off on the agreement with the Met Council. Residents said they felt like the project was already a done deal by the time the city sought their input. Even after the deal was complete, neighbors continued .

This disenchantment comes right as residents have the best chance to affect the process. A lift station can be anything from a barebones building to a facility carefully crafted to fit in with a neighborhood or park. If it includes public restrooms, as the city has discussed, it could even wind up being a benefit to park goers.

“The process is really important, and it’s not a perfect process,” Bradford said. “But the alternatives to the process that you have in place are difficult to bring out.”

 

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Aaron Kuznia June 13, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Great article and well put! Public process is very hard at times. Many people dont "get involved" until late in the process. The planning for something like this can be years in the making and diffacult choices have to be made - for the better of the Community. Hopkins City Council and Staff are doing a great job! I challenge people living in Hopkins to get out and get involved with thier community - ask questions, expect answers.
James Warden (Editor) June 14, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Aaron, thanks for the comments. You've always struck me as a down-to-earth guy (like the others on the advisory commissions—and City Council, for that matter). For those who think you have to be a slick politician to effect change, it might be informative for them to hear how an everyday Hopkins resident could get involved and move on up to the Zoning and Planning Commission.
Norman Teigen June 14, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Nice piece of reporting, James. I, too, think that the City Council and the staff have handled this situation with due care for the best interests of all. Public policy law requires that public matters be done in the open. I think that your reporting indicates that this has been accomplished. Our little city has its own history and identity but at the same time it is part of the larger community. As citizens we need to protect our interests and consider how we fit into the larger landscape. The two comcerns need not be in conflict. The professional staff working with the Met Council can keep the public informed. Metro area sewage flows downhill to St. Paul for proper disposal. The obstacle in the orderly flow of this stuff is the creek. Pumping has to be done. A properly constructed facility can meet the technical requirements and last cor a long time.The external facility can be constructed without diminishment of the attractiveness of the area.

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