By Jordan Gerard
Editor, The Caledonia Argus
After pressure, hard decisions and a few hard feelings as well, the Houston City Council announced they were “trying to figure out an exit strategy” out of the proposed Off-Highway Vehicle trail.
Mayor Dave Olson said at the May 10 meeting the noise study with OHV Acoustics LLC was on hold and the cost of exiting out of the trail process could be about $400,000, repaid by the city. Documents also cited the land – already annexed into the city – would also have to be sold off.
The news was welcome to the group of citizens that formed in the past five months, many of whom spoke against the trail at past meetings.
Scott Wallace asked if the council was willing to do a feasibility study or a business plan on the proposed trail before the exit strategy was announced by Olson. City Administrator Michelle Quinn said the city received a quote for $15,000 to perform a study, however, the city did not have a funding stream to cover that cost. If the city exits out of the process, the $15,000 is added to the $400,000. The council has not made a decision on a feasibility study.
“We talked a lot about the risk, [but] we haven’t seen any tangible numbers with the reward,” Wallace said. “A lot of people want the community to do well, but a feasibility study is based on what you expect. We need something to base it on...”
More specific details of the exit plan were not ready yet, Quinn explained. The city has requested information about the process. The city does know that there are costs for purchases, appraisal expenses and LAWCON changes through government funding. Quinn added it takes time to sort through that.
City residents were given their chance to speak on the trail Monday night. Steve Westby said he talked to many people and saw about 161 signs in town opposing the trail. He also expressed concern that the hill is going to come down in one big storm if the trail is cut in.
Jean Tippery said she wished the council would have brought a plan on the income, or something to show that would have made the trail look positive.
“I see nothing about a plan of action ... I don’t see anything about the money it’s going to bring in,” she said. “Is it really going to outweigh the destruction? There’s really not a lot of planning on the income part of it.”
Sandy Fitting asked council members how many emails, phone calls or letters they received on the topic. Numbers averaged between 15 and 25 for councilors Cody Mathers and Emily Krage, who answered the question. Most of the council members inherited the proposed trail when they joined the council after the Grant-In-Aid process had been started.
Olson spoke up and said he didn’t understand why people were concerned now, when the trail has been in the works for 12 years. It was also pointed out that Olson originally opposed the trail, but after learning about the trail and what it could potentially do for Houston, he supported it.
Sarah Thompson said she thought it was a dead project until the last meeting in April. She did hear about the petition in 2012.
“I am shocked at the amount of anwers that you didn’t have. My mind has been blown by the lack of information about this,” she said. She also pointed out she sent an email to all council members, but only heard back from Mathers and Krage.
Anna Benda explained her concerns with construction if the trail were to go through. She has a retaining wall 12 ft. from her kitchen and is concerned about erosion, landslides and rocks dislodged from the top of the bluffs. She also asked if the city would have supplemental insurance for the trail, since most homeowners likely do not have insurance to cover landslides.
“It’s not just my house. A lot of houses are on the border,” she added. Benda also cited a construction appraiser who said houses within 700-900 ft. of a construction site can have cracked foundations due to construction.
“Houston needs more amenities, tourism to bring stuff in, we agree on that,” she said. “...A DNR study in 2017 cites only 6% of Minnesotans are OHV users. For geocaching and hiking, there’s 32%.”
On that note, she pointed out Houston’s tourism demographic includes the Root River Bike Trail, International Owl Center, Root River Triathlon, naturalists and hunters. That would conflict with OHV users, she explained, and it would conflict with Houston’s international recognition for the International Owl Center.
She also explained many people thought the project was dead, and understood that the council felt as they were being ambushed, but said people were all informed about the trail.
Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center, clarified rumors that had been circulating on social media. She clarified she did not organize the opposition group, but that “there are many people who were also leading their own focused efforts based on their individual skills, and we all came together as a big, grass-roots group.” She said she focuses on the environmental and tourism aspects.
Funds for “Save the Bluffs” are for postage, printing and website fees. To provide transparency, any remaining funds will stay with the Owl Center and be used for its future facility, which is what the “Save the Bluffs” group wished.
She also said the Owl Center’s board of directors voted to serve as the fiscal agent for the “Save Our Bluffs” group because the Owl Center’s mission aligns with the mission of the new group. There has not been an attempt to overfundraise in order to get more money for the Owl Center, she clarified.
Bloem is also not being paid extra to work on this effort. The Owl Center is not under any deadlines for fundraising nor land purchase agreements with the city, as an agreement has not been signed yet. After the aviary is built with the new Owl Center, no fireworks will be allowed within 250 yards, but that does not prohibit fireworks for Houston.
Media has reached out to her or regularly attends council meetings. She did not invite media.
The International Festival of Owls banquet was held at the Houston Community Center for years until guests received half-frozen food due to ovens not working. Valley High Golf Club was too crowded and now the banquet is typically held at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church.
She encouraged city council members to get accurate information about the Owl Center from the center itself, not from Facebook posts.
Other council news
In usual May business for Houston, the council heard from Thurman Tucker with the Southeast Quail Forever Chapter, who asked to form a partnership with the Houston Nature Center and also do more activities with high school students.
The council approved the bonding plan for the wastewater treatment plant in the principal amount of $1,198,986, at a rate of 1%. They also approved a first request from Wapasha Construction for the amount of $78,094.75.
The Houston Fire Department will add another member to its service soon, with Dylan Schulze.
The council approved the cooperative agreement with Caledonia Ambulance Service for advanced life support intercept service if requested by Houston.
Also approved was the agreement with Houston School District to use the high school athletic fields for summer rec. Along with that, employees Nicole Beckman, Olivia Beckman, Lilly Carr, Lilly Davenport, Emma Forsythe, Priya Kingsley, Conner Porter, Becca Rostad and Sydney Torgerson were hired as summer rec staff.
Plunkett’s Pest Control was approved for service in April, June, and September at City Hall, Maple Street Community Building, Houston Nature Center and City Park restrooms, which is $135 per visit. The council voted to add the Cedar Street building, for an extra $45 per visit.
The council approved a temporary liquor license for Houston Hoedown, July 23-25.
The next meeting will be June 14, at 6 p.m. at the Cedar Street Commuity Building.