North St. Paul council nixes Shawnee Drive sidewalk in 2014 improvements

Following resident opposition, $4.6 million project moves ahead without sidewalk that would have been part of walkway to connect Casey and Polar parks

It came down to who showed up.

After hearing from residents who strongly opposed a sidewalk on Shawnee Drive, the North St. Paul City Council on Dec. 17 ordered a major street project in the northwest portion of the city -- without a walkway that was identified in a planning document as key to connecting two parks via the city’s trail system. 

Council member Jan Walczak first made a motion to approve the project as-is, with the sidewalk, in order to gather more information and then potentially scale back the improvement later on. It failed 3-2. Mayor Mike Kuehn and council member Candy Petersen voted against it.

“[Removing the sidewalk is] kind of jumping the gun,” Walczak said at the meeting. “If there’s 137 homes ... there’s certainly not 137 people here. I think you need to look at what’s best for the community as a whole. They’re helping pay for this, too.”

Four votes were required to move the project forward. That left some of the council members no choice but to vote for the subsequent motion to pass it without the path or risk upsetting the entire project. It passed 4-1. Walczak dissented.

The council must now reexamine the city’s Living Streets Plan, which was created with help from the Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District and a citizen task force a few years ago. It was adopted to guide capital improvements to promote better drainage and “walkability” in the community.

The plan identifies a parkway that connects Casey and Polar parks. The Shawnee Drive sidewalk would have created the north tail end that completes the path.

Sidewalks are a significant feature of “living streets,” but the document does encourage the city to customize projects, taking into account the needs of current and future residents. The plan also directs the city to educate the public, in order to get them on board with the effort meant to control polluted water runoff, make streets safer and improve the look of neighborhoods.

Kuehn said that the current residents’ needs outweighed the Living Streets guidelines. He said he wanted to send a message to the residents that the council heard them.

“They just didn’t want a sidewalk going through their neighborhood,” he said in an interview. “People don’t have a strong trust in government. ... Let them see the council’s action upfront, that evening, that it wasn’t going to be part of the project.”

He said he would like to see Living Streets guidelines implemented where they make sense. For example, he said sidewalks should be maintained along high-traffic streets.

No sidewalk doesn’t mean lower assessments

Cutting the Shawnee Drive sidewalk is estimated to shave off about $40,000 from the project, but it doesn’t change the amount the residents in the project area are assessed. 

Assessments are based on a city policy, where affected property owners pay a certain rate, depending on the improvement. For example, a reconstruction assessment is $64 per front foot, according to the city’s fee schedule.

The average total assessment per  household is around $4,800.

Assessments stay the same

Prior to the meeting, the city sent a survey to 141 residents, asking for feedback on the sidewalk. Forty-one people responded and 28 of them did not support the trail.

There were multiple neighborhood meetings about the street project, including one just for the Shawnee Drive residents, where residents raised concerns about the path, the overall cost and various impacts of construction.

About 10 people spoke at the public hearing prior to the vote. The majority of attendees opposed the sidewalk.

Some of the residents at the hearing said snow removal would be a burden. Others said they didn’t want to pay for it, asking the council to cut the sidewalk to save them money on assessments.

But the assessment rate does not change with cutting the sidewalk, a point that staff clarified multiple times, even for council members. A policy sets the assessments based on the type of improvement.

However, reducing the price of the project does affect the general taxpayer contribution, which is where most -- more than 85 percent -- of funding is coming from via city funds.

The estimated total cost of the project is $4.6 million. Of that, nearly $629,000 will come from special assessments.

The average assessment for an individual household is around $4,800, which can be paid right away or over a 15-year period with interest. Some residents experiencing hardship have the opportunity to apply for deferment of the assessments.

Project overview

The project is part of the city’s effort to catch up on previously deferred maintenance. Construction is expected to start next spring and finish in the fall.

Improvements on some of the crack-covered streets include bituminous pavement mill and overlay, where a couple of inches of the blacktop is removed and replaced. Other improvements: pavement reconstruction and replacement of sanitary sewers, water mains and storm sewers.

Project area:
• Shawnee Drive between McKnight Road North and Chippewa Avenue
• Mohawk Road East between McKnight Road North and Delaware Avenue
• Apache Road North between Shawnee Drive and Mohawk Road East
• Delaware Avenue between Shawnee Drive and 17th Avenue East
• Chippewa Avenue between Beam Avenue and Delaware Avenue

Most of the sewer system in the area dates back to the 1950s and has root damage and cracks, according to the feasibility report. There have been water main breaks along Chippewa and Delaware avenues.

The city hopes to include some stormwater management elements, which are encouraged in the Living Streets Plan. The city is looking for people who are interested in installing a rain garden or an infiltration swale.

What’s next?

The council is scheduled to consider approving the plans and specifications in February, and open construction bids in March. In April, the council is expected to consider awarding the construction contract, and setting an assessment hearing.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814, kroby@lillienews.com or at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

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