Long-term plan will chart park system’s future

Board members put heads together, identify priorities


parks graphicClint Riese
News Editor

Forest Lake’s park system is large, but are its amenities well-known to the community? What amount of trail linkage is needed, both in the city and on a regional level? Should the city put its resources into fully maintaining each park, or should it invest in a few signature ones?

These and plenty more questions were on the table as members of the City Council, Planning Commission and Park Board met with city staff and landscape architects Feb. 18.

The joint workshop marked the second meeting in an effort to develop a Parks and Trails Master Plan. A similar plan adopted in 2003 was designed to guide decisions for 10 years.

Big-picture priorities

The architects, hired from Bolton and Menk to develop the master plan, led a “S.W.O.T.” analysis at the Feb. 18 meeting through which those in attendance identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relating to the city’s park and trails system.

When discussion naturally veered into specific topics, such as the proposed multi-million-dollar development of Bixby Park, the moderators steered talk back to big-picture issues that will set the table for more specific conversations down the road.

Several group members expressed interest in developing an inventory of the current system that would classify – and potentially prioritize – each park.

Another common goal is to reach consensus on whether to focus funding and energy on regionally significant parks or on maintaining the system as a whole.

“Just establishing one philosophy on that would be a good outcome for the process,” City Administrator Aaron Parrish said.

Enhancing trail connections to city parks and partnering to develop regional trails were deemed to be of significant importance.

Several members noted that the Hardwood Creek Regional Trail is a great asset for north-south traffic in the city, but trail links to it are few and far between, and no similar east-west route exists. A plan for new city trails is in the works in advance of a 2016 state project that will include a pedestrian bridge over Highway 61 near the high school.

However, Parrish described a “big gap of white space” on the map where regional trails are lacking.

“It is a very noticeable gap in the whole entire Washington County area,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities to develop regional trail connections that make sense and hopefully some of those plans come forward.”

Opportunities exist, he added.

“There is funding for regional trails, and I think one of the things we need to do as we have our plan and roll it up into the county’s plan, is to identify those connections,” he said.

For example, Parrish said a loop including the Hardwood Creek trail, County Road 4, Manning Trail and Highway 97 would make for a great ride.

“Between here and Stillwater there’s a pretty significant biking culture and you just see people hitting the roads in the Scandia and Forest Lake area all the time anyway,” Parrish said. “I think that would really be something we could try to push our other partners to get on their radar screen a little bit.”

Next steps

The architects will refine the scope of the master plan based on feedback from the meeting. A steering committee, which met once recently, will meet a few more times before work on the plan wraps up mid-year.

Results will be incorporated into a report, which will be completed in time for the City Council to reference while planning the city’s 2015 budget.

Last year, at the council’s request, the Park Board compiled a wish list of $350,000 worth of park maintenance needs and upgrades. Then, in November, the council tabled action pending completion of the master plan.

The delay also allowed the various groups to get on the same page. Planning Commission Member Dennis Batty appreciated that opportunity, saying the meeting motivated him to “make the rounds” to learn about the parks.

“This isn’t just something that you just sit down, write out a check and do all at once,” he said. “It’s building almost a legacy by doing one good thing after another.”