The Argus reached out to the mayor and council members for their view on the proposed trail.
Since January 2021, have your opinions changed on bringing the trail to Houston? Why or why not?
Cody Mathers: In some ways, yes. Being newer to council, and with this being decided by previous councils a long time ago, I tried to refrain from having much of a public opinion on the trail. After all, who am I to come in and overturn things that were decided so long ago?
But now that we are hearing from what I perceive to be a significant amount of Houston residents who say they don’t want it, I need to listen to them and look at what our project exit options are in case that’s the route we need to go.
Emily Krage: I have always been open about wanting to see Houston grow and succeed. I have been voting like that since 2016, if it made sense for Houston.
Past councils started voting on this trail in 2009 and having been moving in the direction of bringing the park to Houston.
When I started running for council in 2016, I attended the monthly council meeting to see what the Council was working on and to get caught up. Council was voting on OHV business and the approved votes were moving the project forward.
So in 2017 when the next steps to move forward were presented to me, I voted in favor, to keep that project going. I have voted in favor for 2017, 2018, 2020, and so far in 2021. I can’t see that there was anything to vote on in 2019.
The only thing that I have spoken out as against was purchasing additional land that was presented to the board since the land was not connected. As some concerns are increasing, I would like to slow down and get some answers which council has voted in favor of such as conducting a new sound study. I will make my future votes dependent on what those types of studies show is best for the community.
Is there any other location suitable for an OHV trail near Houston?
Mathers: I’m not sure. Certainly we have large areas of land in Houston County where proximity to homes and noise concerns wouldn’t be as big of an issue. But, I think the soil erosion and wildlife displacement concerns might be present regardless of location in this area.
Krage: Houston was picked because of the terrain and a ready supply of food and gas.
What are the next steps after the April 12 council meeting?
Mathers: I can only speak for myself, as one council member, but I would like to see a full list of project exit options so that we can weigh project pros and cons against the potential costs of discontinuing (because yes, there would be costs to discontinuing). I think the public deserves to know what those options are, too. And, I look forward to the noise study that will measure actual vehicle noise in the proposed park area.
Krage: The next steps are to continue to move forward with the sound study, look at the results, and make the appropriate decisions based off of that study. Council is looking at all options, including an exit plan that would require repayment of approximately $400,000 in grant funding.
Will the advisory committee get together again this year?
Mathers: It is not one of my committee assignments as a council member, but I certainly hope it will reconvene now. This committee exists to bridge any communication gap between the city and community stakeholders, and the recent opposition to the project is, to me, a side effect of the committee not meeting since 2017. We need this committee to meet and do its job now more than ever.
Krage: I do not sit on that committee but I think it would be a good idea. Reactivating the committee to research, compile options, and present recommendations to Council in regards to the trail makes sense at this time.
Is it worth it to have an Economic Impact Study be done and will a new/updated Environmental Assessment be done? Should the council schedule these studies?
Mathers: I can see value in an economic impact study. I would need to understand the cost and effort involved before I would commit to supporting one. If we determine it can be done at low cost and in a reasonable amount of time, I’m not sure what we would have to lose by doing one. As for an updated EA, the DNR is saying that it not necessary. I’m concerned that the first one was done before the trail alignments/paths were designated, but I’m not sure that’s justification enough to redo it and go against DNR guidance.
Krage: An Economic Impact Study is only as good as the research that can be completed at the time of the study. There is no trail in Houston at this time so we would have to rely on other towns that have similar trails (which have been visited/talked with) and go based off of that information. We would need to rely on the information that is conducted for trails as a whole in Minnesota, which has been done, and go off of those numbers. This is what has already been completed. I am not sure if an Economic Impact Study can be completed on something that does not exist.
According to the Environmental Review Need Determination (10/02/2019) in regards to Houston MN Trails Project, the EAW Need Determination states, “…it appears that the project as proposed is not exempt from environmental review based on Minnesota Rules 4410.4600. However, it does not appear to meet any of the thresholds identified in Minnesota Rules 4410.4300 or 4410.4400, and therefore environmental review is not required.” If there is project design change or information that affects the basis for that determination, it can be reassessed.
Are you comfortable with having outside groups bring the trail to Houston? Would you prefer a local group to oversee the trail? Would that group be under the city or operate independently?
Mathers: I don’t feel equipped to answer this question. I haven’t met anyone from the outside groups, and at this time I have no reason to question their dedication to implementing the project with fidelity. I’m not sure we could switch to local groups at this time, as the outside groups were the ones who sponsored the grant with us.
Krage: I prefer to see a group that will be able to maintain the trails appropriately, be able to apply for grants/funding, and have regular communication with trail users, local businesses, the community, the DNR, and the City.
If the trail doesn’t go through, what else could Houston add to its list of recreational and tourism opportunities?
Mathers: One great thing that has come out of the public engagement over the OHV project is that people are presenting other ideas for improving Houston. And, we should be evaluating those ideas regardless of the OHV project continuing or not. Some ideas I recall offhand are: Developing our Root River access to increase canoeing, kayaking, tubing, etc.; hiking trails; mountain biking trails; opening up more property to for commercial opportunities (zoning). We’re a short drive from La Crosse, Winona, and Rochester, and we should look at ALL ideas that would draw families from those cities to Houston in order to keep our city thriving.
Krage: Trail or no trail, Houston can always be looking to add to our list of recreational and tourism opportunities.
Since joining council, two new businesses have been added within city limits, two businesses were annexed in to city limits which hopefully promoted tourism to the area.
Also since joining council, to promote an increase in recreation and tourism council has voted in favor of new banners and signage, funding for tourism projects, approved changes to Nature Center such as camping and the Natural Playground, assisted and supported Mission 66 for the new City Park, worked with the International Owl Center for land agreement for the proposed new site, made changes to the food truck policies to allow for more availability options, a new community center, and street improvement projects. I am sure I am missing some, and I hope people continue to come forward with their ideas and projects.