Variance request for river property raises questions

Does the neighbor know more than the experts?


Mary Bailey
Community Editor

South of Crabtree’s Garden Gate on St. Croix Trail (TH-95), if you turn left on 197th Street, you leave the highway behind.

The road heads east, then south. At the turn it changes from a level, two-lane paved street to a narrow, steeply descending one-lane dirt road, flanked by trees.

At the bottom is a peaceful neighborhood along the St. Croix River.

When the Scandia Planning Commission met on June 4, one variance request was for a new well and septic system for the house on 0.71 acre at 16963 197th St.

The seasonal residence uses a composting toilet and, for water, a spring box: a stone or concrete structure that collects spring water and protects it from contamination. According to City Planner Sherri Buss, spring boxes are common in the river valley.

“They go back to the 1840s. They’re all over the place,” she said.

New owners Thomas and Angeline Conley want to install a septic system, as recommended by Washington County. A new well would be needed because the spring box would no longer be safe.

The Conleys expressed concern for the ecosystem.

“We’re willing to take on added expense if it’s good for the river,” Angie Conley said.

The septic system would be behind the house. But it would still be closer to the river, and both mound and well would be closer to a wetland than city code allows.

The Department of Natural Resources, Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District and National Park Service support the project. The Watershed District recommended a current percolation test to determine absorption rates, plus a soil study if necessary. The Park Service wants prairie plantings on and below the mound.

Five neighbors wrote to the city in favor of the variances.

Adjacent property owner Will Eginton, however, said in a letter “there is not enough dry land on this site to safely support a septic system.” The small, environmentally fragile property has four natural springs, he wrote, and a previous owner (three owners ago) was denied permission for well and septic installations.

That owner then installed a drainage tile grid and brought in 250 yards of fill in 1985, Eginton wrote. “These drains and interceptor trenches designed to eliminate the wetland are now being used to claim suitability for the previously denied septic system.”

Eginton also questioned the use of soil data from June of 2003, a year that precipitation records show was in the driest 20th percentile. And even though the year was dry and the tiles had been working for 18 years, “wetlands still existed over much of the site,” he said.

Buss said she showed Eginton’s letter to Jed Chesnut of the Washington Conservation District and Peter Ganzel of the Washington County Department of Health.

Chesnut visited the site, flagged the wetland, dug pits and observed the hydric soils. Since the area is surrounded by swamps, he said, a formal wetland delineation, while not required, could be helpful.

Ganzel said the tile doesn’t change things: “Groundwater is just being moved from one side to the other.” To eliminate any question that spring box water will be potable, he said, that tile line should be abandoned.

At the June 4 meeting Angie Conley said the previous owner told her there is no tile line to the spring box. (The Conleys had closed on the property the day before.)

During the public forum, Eginton disagreed.

“The tile goes directly into that spring box,” he said. He was there with Roger Lindell when it was installed in 1987, he said. “If you disconnect the tile, then this whole area becomes a wetland. It will revert to swamp.”

Buss recommended approval of the variances, with conditions.

The Planning Commission questioned the need for more information in the face of conflicting testimony.

Peter Schwarz said, “If the Park Service, DNR, Watershed District and county approved this, I see no reason not to.”

Steve Philippi said he was inclined to postpone the decision to make sure Eginton’s information is shared and the subterranean topography is thoroughly understood.

“Mr. Eginton may have more knowledge than anyone who’s presented a professional opinion,” he said.

Philippi said because the site is precariously close to a high-value resource, abundant caution is justified.

“This isn’t your average property. I’m not getting the level of comfort I need from the documentation,” he said.

Commissioners wondered whether the county recommendation covered only human safety, not environmental.

“Which authority is concerned with the quality of the river?” Schwarz asked.

“If the Park Service or Watershed District had any concern, you’d see it here,” Buss replied.

Commissioners also questioned whether the effect of disconnecting tiles was sufficiently known.

“They don’t seem to express any concern about the drain tile system,” Chair Christine Maefsky said. “They’re not going to disconnect something that they don’t think is connected.”

In the end, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the variance requests, with the added conditions that new percolation tests be done, plus new soil borings if recommended by the Watershed District, and that the agencies have access to an accurate description of site hydrogeology.

The City Council will consider this variance request and two others at the June 18 meeting.