Trail to extend north from William O’Brien State Park
The Gateway State Trail begins near the state capitol in St. Paul and ends at Washington County’s Pine Point Regional Park in northern Stillwater.
This popular place to bike and hike started in 1980 as an abandoned railroad track for the Soo Line Railway.
Portions of the 18-mile trail are also used for horseback riding, cross-country skiing and roller blading. Motorized vehicles are prohibited.
For years, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Parks and Trails Council, Gateway Trail Association and local residents have worked to add more miles to the trail. The plan is to extend it from Pine Point to William O’Brien State Park and then continue northward.
The legislation creating the trail has it eventually connecting with the Willard Munger State Trail, a collection of multiple-use trails between Hinckley and Duluth. Officially, the Gateway is a segment of Willard Munger.
But as difficult as it was to convert a railroad (neighboring landowners brought a lawsuit, which the state won), it’s even harder to get individual landowners to grant trail easements.
It can take years to find enough adjoining property owners in the correct location who will work with the DNR.
Scandia resident Lori Gordon, who lives near William O’Brien State Park, had hosted meetings in her home to acquaint residents with the Gateway idea. She eventually gave up for lack of progress.
“There are no abandoned railroad beds here, so it’s almost impossible,” she said.
The DNR works only with willing landowners. Between Pine Point Regional Park and William O’Brien State Park, in May Township, several are not willing.
North of the state park, however, the DNR is acquiring easements and plans to complete a portion of the trail in a few years.
For now, the DNR is focusing on the new Browns Creek Trail that links Stillwater to the Gateway. Browns Creek runs mostly east and west, south of Highway 96. The owner of the retired Zephyr dinner train sold the land for Browns Creek to the DNR and Washington County. Of the $4.25 million purchase price, the county paid $1 million.
Compared to the slow process of negotiating with several landowners, the Zephyr purchase was speedy.
“Browns Creek was a sweet thing to fall into,” said Forest Lake resident Courtland Nelson, DNR Parks and Trails director.
To be safe, the Browns Creek Trail needs a bridge over Manning Avenue, a busy county highway. Funding for the bridge was approved by the state Legislature this spring, and plans are to begin work in October.
Washington County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said earthwork, grading and ramps will be done this fall. The bridge will be manufactured and installed, and paving will occur next spring. The Browns Creek Trail is set to open next summer.
In the meantime, between William O’Brien and downtown Scandia, three easements have been purchased and a fourth is likely. That’s all it takes for a future Gateway Trail segment.
The trail will leave the northwest corner of William O’Brien, heading north along the west edge of Arden Johnson’s dairy farm. Johnson has not signed an agreement but has expressed a willingness to participate.
Following an appraisal process, the DNR plans to make him an offer on an easement. If negotiations are successful, in the future he will have to cross the trail to reach one field. Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, said the Johnson easement could be in state ownership by the end of 2013.
At Oakhill Road, the trail will go underground through a concrete tunnel, then emerge at the Barkley-Sells Prairie Doctor llama farm. After heading west along the county right of way, the trail will turn north into the llama farm woods.
From there the trail will run west across the north boundary of the Erickson acreage, then behind houses and Meister’s Bar and Grill. It finishes at open space behind the city-owned old fire hall on Oakhill Road.
Joel Erickson said “I’d really love to see this trail go through. It would give us access to ride horses on a safe, scenic trail rather than near a highway.”
In general, the easements are 100 feet wide, which is enough to have parallel paved (bike) and unpaved (horse) trails.
Easements cost the state about $250,000 per mile, according to May Township Board Chairman Bill Voedisch. The Scandia easements total about two miles.
The Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota helps the DNR get land for trails. “The land comes on the market before the DNR has money,” said former Scandia mayor Denny Seefeldt.
Kent Skaar, acquisition and development section leader at the DNR, explained that the owner loses use of the land in the easement and taxes are substantially reduced. But the total acres owned remains the same, which can benefit the owner for property tax purposes (agricultural land is taxed at a lower rate) or when the land is subdivided.
For the trailhead at the old fire hall, the DNR does not have an official agreement with Scandia, but city officials have supported the idea over the years. A trailhead must be on government-owned property.
As for the neighbors and impacts of living near a trail, the Parks and Trails Council cites research showing property near a park area can be worth more than similar property with no park.
But losing one’s privacy is a worry for some. At least one family is a planning a privacy fence.
Another concern is the secretive nature of the easement-buying process. Some nearby Scandia residents knew about the acquisitions, but only because their neighbors told them.
In Scandia, when a development goes in or a property owner asks for a variance, the neighbors receive letters so they can attend public hearings. Before the Ironman Bike Ride passed through Scandia in April, the ride director mailed a letter telling residents about the event.
But the state does not follow this practice. Instead, an easement can be sold along an entire lot line, with one neighbor single-handedly making a decision that can affect the other’s property. With the burden of notifying neighbors placed on the easement sellers, some have said that relationships have been damaged as certain neighbors were told and others left in the dark.