FLPD to up enforcement on State Highway 97

Photo by Ryan Howard
A Forest Lake police officer directs traffic in the aftermath of two afternoon crashes at the intersection of North Shore Trail and State Highway 97 Aug. 22. Police are now planning a program of increased enforcement along the highway.

“That’s going to be the message, that enough is enough,” Forest Lake Police Captain Greg Weiss said.

During the Forest Lake City Council’s Aug. 28 meeting, the Forest Lake Police Department, supported by the council, announced that it would be stepping up enforcement of distracted driving and speeding laws on State Highway 97 in Forest Lake. Public concern about safety on the highway has grown in recent years following a number of high-profile crashes on the road, the latest of which were two Aug. 22 crashes at the highway’s intersection with North Shore Trail.

With grant funding for enforcement less available currently, Weiss told the council, the department is taking matters into its own hands and is reaching out to the Minnesota State Patrol and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to form a partnership to increase patrols of and monitoring on the road, including marked and unmarked squad cars. The department also hopes to partner with Forest Lake Area Schools on an educational initiative. There is no timeline on when such increased enforcement will begin, but Weiss told The Times the department plans to begin implementing the program soon.

Though officers will be keeping an eye out for speeders – speeding on the road is a common complaint among Forest Lake residents – Weiss told the council that studies of the road have shown that speed is not the primary problem on the state highway. A larger problem, he said, is drivers who are traveling at or under the speed limit but who are distracted by their phones or other things, which can lead to improper passing and other dangerous activity. Highway 97 east of the high school is a relatively curvy roadway with changes in elevations and several road outlets, and Weiss said there is far too much going on on the road for drivers to be doing anything but paying attention to their surroundings. He noted that violators caught on the roadway shouldn’t be surprised to be ticketed under the new enforcement program.

Councilwoman Mara Bain said that some residents believe the speed limit on the road should be lowered, and Mayor Ben Winnick suggested placing a flashing yellow light at blind intersections like the one at 97 and North Shore. City Engineer Ryan Goodman told the council that residents came out in force to a recent Minnesota Department of Transportation open house about the highway and that the city has recently expressed to MnDOT that it needs solutions right away on the road. MnDOT will soon complete one safety project on the road – the addition of a left turn lane at the intersection of 97 and 11th Street – and Goodman told the council he would brief them at an upcoming meeting about other potential projects.

“There’s a lot of other places in the state that are fighting for the same dollars we are,” Goodman said.

Old compost site

The council appeared split during a discussion at its Aug. 21 work session about whether or not to find an agreement with Washington County that would result in the county taking over Forest Lake’s yard waste collection operation on the grounds of the old city compost site, without the city charging the county rent for operating on city land. After permit violations by the site’s old private operator in 2015, the city began operating the site itself (without on-site composting) following a clean-up of the property. City Administrator Aaron Parrish estimated that the site’s operation costs the city about $30,000 per year, including time spent by public works employees transporting the waste off-site to be composted.

“We’re avoiding $30,000 per year in costs and we’re not going to lease out that property for that amount of money,” Parrish said of the area, which sits behind the old Forestland Nursery site. The county has also expressed interest in housing a household hazardous waste facility at the site, which would allow greater convenience for Forest Lake residents who currently have to trek to Woodbury to dispose of such waste.

Winnick and Councilman Michael Freer were skeptical of allowing the county to operate on the site due to the county’s behavior during the permit operation issues in 2015. They believed the county failed to notify the city when it first learned that the old site operator, Buberl, was out of compliance, and they felt the county was inflexible in working with the city on cleanup solutions, ultimately forcing the city to spend more money on cleanup and to temporarily close the site. The men believed the city operating a site on its own was preferable to working with an agency that they weren’t sure they could count on to be a good-faith partner.

“If you brought me a $30,000 renter for this, I might take it, but it’s Washington County, so I don’t trust it,” Freer said.

“Who are we penalizing? Us or them?” Councilman Sam Husnik asked.

Freer replied that he didn’t believe the city operating the site itself was a penalty, and in fact was a good value. The discussion ended without a clear direction on what the city should do, but Winnick did have a humorous solution for how to save time and costs for carting the waste off-site.

“Can’t our fire chief give us a permit for a bonfire?” Winnick joked, eliciting laughs from the rest of those in attendance.