Feb. 19, 2015: Please seen an important update at the end of this article.
“It was almost a miracle,” Lisa Schlingerman said as she walked out of the Scandia town hall.
The city council had just voted to pave and put in curbs, gutters, and storm sewer down the steep, shady, gravel road to Log House Landing. Schlingerman, who has lived next to the landing for 32.5 years (as she told the council), had been active in efforts to preserve its rustic nature.
After two hours of testimony and discussion between the city council and members of a special committee appointed to come up with a plan for the landing, it took four motions for the council to approve the plan. A suggestion by the mayor to wait another year gave a moment of unexpected hope to preservationists, but the motion ultimately failed.
The committee had spent four months in meetings, and comments throughout the night made it clear the discussions had often been heated. Now they were presenting their proposal — and nobody seemed happy with it.
Committee chair Christine Maefsky, a member of the city’s planning commission, did most of the presenting. She explained that they had come up with several important criteria for renovations, and four options ranging from keeping it gravel to wide and paved. The measures the committee had agreed on included reducing runoff, protecting natural resources, providing access, safety, historic preservation, and maintenance costs and effort.
Leaving it gravel came out on top, except for one last criteria: ability to secure approval.
“The minimal road design ranked highest on our matrix, but it is not our recommendation because we did not think it would pass the city council,” Maefsky said.
So a narrow paved road was their recommendation, she said. They came with a design for a 13-foot wide paved driving lane with curb, gutter, and storm sewer on the south side, and a gravel parking lane on the north side.
Figment of erosion
The whole idea of renovating the landing started with worries about washouts. The public works department reported dumping 50,000 tons of gravel on the road during the past couple years to fill in ruts.
The increased maintenance seemed like the result of increasing use on a steep gravel road. But it’s possible the maintenance itself was the problem.
“I remember when there was grass growing down the center of the driving lane,” said Pam Plowman Smith, whose family has had a cabin nearby since 1918. “Erosion started when the township started grading the road regularly a decade ago. Then they had to repair, add gravel, repair, add gravel. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Plowman Smith reported that a gravel expert the committee had consulted told them how important it is not to “over-grade” a road like that, because grading itself can destabilize packed gravel.
Katherine Lewis’s driveway is across the ravine from the landing road. It runs through the same type of soil and rock, also on the edge a steep embankment. She pointed out her dad, who used to go out after every big rainstorm with a shovel to repair the washouts and ruts in the driveway. Five years ago, she said, they finally had someone come out and grade it properly.
“We have not had a single problem in the past five years. It’s still class 5 [gravel], and with heavy rains it still holds up,” Lewis stated. The council did not respond to the information.
Erosion is often connected to “nutrient pollution” in water, adding more chemicals like phosphorus. Phosphorus is arguably the biggest problem facing the lower St. Croix, as excessive amounts in runoff are worsening algae blooms in Lake St. Croix.
The phosphorus problem was rejected early on in the process, though, once data was shown that very little of the nutrient was being carried into the river from Log House.
Renovation proponents then said their chief conservation concern was to reduce sediment. This problem seemed to be a primary motivation of the city council to pave the site.
In her opening remarks, Plowman Smith rejected that notion.
“If it had been like this for past hundred years, there would be an island of sediment in front of the landing,” she said. “But it’s actually a deep pool. There has been no study or calculation of sediment runoff.”
Later in the discussion, Jim Shaver, administrator of the Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District, a partner in the renovation project, implied it was in fact a problem warranting asphalt. “The ultimate solution to prevent sedimentation of river is paving the road,” he told the city council.
Neighbor Lisa Schlingerman said before the city sets out to fix the problem, it ought to be better understood first.
Searching for safety
The city’s fire chief, Mike Hinz, said national fire codes and the department’s needs would point to a 20-foot wide road. That way a tanker and another truck could be parked next to each other, and it would provide essential river access during the winter, when the road to William O’Brien State Park’s landing is closed.
But this isn’t a normal road, committee member and former city councilmember Sally Swanson stood up to say. She said she had looked into National Park Service road regulations, and they are much different.
“This is a National Park,” Swanson said. “It’s Scandia’s but it’s everybody’s. Road standards in National Parks are very different, you’re at your own risk, same as up in the Boundary Waters. Needless to say, if you’re in the Boundary Waters or on the river, your rescue might not be that quick. We’ve always been told that dive operations are never going to be a rescue, it’s a recovery.”
The city’s employees advised the council that they too preferred leaving it unpaved, although only as an alternative to the committee’s recommendation.
“Staff feels maintaining the current width is safer than reducing it to 13 feet, so would recommend doing nothing over the 13-foot option. Preventing gravel from going into the river is not as important as the possibility of saving a life,” city administrator Kristina Handt wrote.
When it came time to vote, the council changed the plan to include paving the parking lane. The original three-lane paved road with curbs and gutters on both sides, the removal of numerous old trees, and other intense impacts had been avoided, but the landing would change, despite hundreds of people who asked the city to leave it the way it is.
The previous week, the city’s Planning Commission had also heard the proposal. Four out of five members of the commission said they too preferred to keep it unpaved. Both Maefsky and councilmember Hegland said they had heard from a lot of citizens about the issue, and 100 percent had advocated for preserving the landing’s rustic character.
The council was unconvinced. Members said they wanted to stop erosion at the site, to protect the St. Croix River from sediment runoff, and to enhance public safety. Point by point, they rejected the suggestion that an unpaved road could accomplish those goals.
The first motion to adopt the committee’s proposal failed, with Mayor Randall Simonson voting against it.
After another motion failed, Simonson surprisingly moved to make no improvements for a year and revisit the issue then. The committee was begging for a little more time, and it still seemed like there was a lot of disagreement. A murmur washed through the room, as anti-renovation activists saw the glimmer of hope for at least another 12 months of gravel.
The committee had been forced to defend its proposal, to change its preference to what they thought the City Council wanted. But nobody had advocated for why anything needed to be done. Maybe the road just needed a good grading. Simonson’s motion was met mostly by silence, as no one seemed to have an answer to what was so urgent. After a minute, the delay was voted down, with only Hegland voting for it.
Finally, Ness repeated his motion to adopt the plan but with paved parking, and this time Simonson voted for it. The gavel pounded and everyone stood and started filing out of the stuffy room. The pretty little road down to Log House would be paved, with curbs and gutters and storm sewer between your car and the ravine, the spring-fed creek, and the past.
A winter night feels good when you’re coming out of a three-hour meeting, packed in like a crowded airplane and no flight attendants. When the crowd spilled outside, the hockey players at the rink next to the town hall, who had been there when the meeting started, were gone, the rink lights were off, and flakes of snow drifted down to earth.
There seemed to be relief and bewilderment amongst the preservationists. Relief that it would not be the first proposal, that most of the big pines would not be cut down, that it might not feel so “suburban” as the city’s original design. Bewilderment at why. No one had spoken forcefully for why it must be paved, and many had spoken passionately about why it should stay the way it is, but it would be covered in asphalt anyway.
But maybe the big white pines would be saved. Plowman Smith said she thought the compromise on a narrow road that could meander down the hill between the trees would allow them to stay standing.
“Those pines are why we settled here and what makes the river a special place in history,” John Schletty, of St. Croix Falls, said. “They’re not just trees, they’re an iconic species. They add to the mystique of the place, like the rustic road and lack of signs.”
The Friends of Log House Landing are not giving up yet. In an update last week, the group encouraged continuing to contact the council. “This is an excellent time to recognize the sensitivity that the Council showed in adopting the 13’ wide single driving lane and thank them, but also ask them to reconsider the use of pavement,” it stated. Christine Maefsky will be encouraging the council to continue considering alternatives to pavement at the city council workshop tonight (Wednesday, February 2) at 6:30 p.m.
The St. Croix’s winter song
I found myself in the area the next day and turned down the road. Soon after I parked at the landing, two people in warm clothes walked down the hill and across the river, disappearing up the backwater on the other side, with nothing but woods and ice for miles ahead.
I too pulled my hat and gloves on and walked out on the river, to look at the landing from the angle I was used to, coming in from a trip on the water.
A crow cawed from the other shore and a cold wind whipped down from the north. I looked upriver where the ribbon of ice bent out of sight, and downriver where the broad channel went straight another two miles. I was standing in a National Park, the best idea of a great nation, and it put me in a state of wonder as always. The St. Croix a wild and powerful river, and Log House has connected it to the terrestrial world for generations.
After that, I walked up the road, beneath the towering white pines. The sound of Gilbertson Creek slowly built in my ears. Clear spring water, bordered in ice, spilled 30 feet over a falls, echoing out of the ravine like it must have when Swedes started up the hill after getting off a steamboat, heading off to find their farm and their future. They too must have heard that same song.
Important update (Feb. 19, 2015)
Officials have agreed to wait until the erosion issue can be analyzed before deciding on a solution. Read more…
Thanks to Lakes Area Community Television for providing video of the meeting. The Log House Landing discussion begins at 59:30:
The Country Messenger also provided an in-depth article about the decision. “For the first time in its history, Scandia’s Log House Landing road will receive a layer of blacktop,” it begins.