Oct. 23, 2006

City OK with skating rink in wetlands; despite developer's strong objections

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

A lengthy discussion took place at Tuesday evening’s Delano City Council meeting when Jon Burnham of 618 Savanna Trail appeared to request using city-owned wetlands behind his home as a skating area in the winter months.

Acting on an anonymous complaint that wetlands were being damaged in the Westridge Hills third addition, the city sent iTs wetland administrator, Todd Shoemaker, to investigate the report that wetland buffers were mowed down and that Burnham was cutting the grasses out into the wetland.

When Shoemaker went to the site Oct. 9, Burnham was home, and the two spoke. Shoemaker said Burnham didn’t understand the buffer and wetland restrictions, but was cooperative, and agreed he would no longer mow the buffer vegetation.

Burnham asked Shoemaker about mowing the wetland vegetation during the winter for use as a hockey rink, and Shoemaker indicated Burnham would not be in violation of the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act, which would make the mowing acceptable.

The following day, another complaint came into city hall about the fact that the property Burnham was on is actually owned by the City of Delano, and not Burnham.

It was noted that when Shoemaker visited the site, he was looking at it from a wetland conservation aspect, and did not contemplate who owned the property.

A follow-up visit was conducted by the city’s building official, who asked Burnham to not take any further action until having permission from the city to move forward.

City staff contacted the League of Minnesota Cities regarding liability issues if such a project should move forward, and a representative of the League said it would not be opposed to city property being used in this fashion, with several conditions, including there being no baseboards used, and that the city does not maintain the ice surface, does not check ice conditions, and is not responsible for the operations of the skating area.

Burnham, along with his wife, Kari, visited city hall Oct. 11, apologized for any confusion, and asked the correct way to go about utilizing the wetlands as a skating rink, while complying with the city’s ordinances, which led to Burnham’s appearance before the city council Tuesday.

At the meeting, Burnham told the council that he had worked out the issue with the neighbor who had made the initial complaint, and said he had “100 percent approval of every resident we contacted” about the project.

Burnham said the main concern residents in the area had were that the lights be turned off at a reasonable hour once people are done using the rink.

Westridge Hills developer Bill Huser spoke at the meeting, stating that there are a number of reasons Burnham’s proposal concerned him and his company.

Huser said he did not feel the unanimity was as solid with area residents’ support as Burnham exclaimed, and also felt that a rink with lighting would disrupt the solitude of the neighborhood.

He also stated the covenants his company has with the homeowners prohibits intruding upon wetlands. When the development was first getting started, Huser said the city required his company to include clauses in the covenants for no intrusion on the wetlands.

“Our belief is that the council actually has no legal authority to supercede the covenants to allow something that is specifically not allowed,” Huser said. “Westridge Hills is adamantly opposed to impacting wetlands. We think there is a viable solution using a public park area.”

Council members Brad Hotchkiss and Holly Schrupp agreed, both stating they would like to see a public park area utilized for such a project.

“I would like to see it in a public area,” Schrupp said.

Delano Fire Chief Bob Van Lith said the city currently floods four rinks.

Hotchkiss asked Burnham if he minded the people walking across his yard to get to the rink, and if there were any parking issues, as parking is allowed only on one side of Savanna Trail. Burnham stated there weren’t, and that there was usually a core group of people who used the rink last year. Hotchkiss asked Burnham if he was against doing something in the park area, and Burnham stated he was not, and that he was willing to work with whatever guidelines the city set.

“It’s a skating rink,” commented Mayor Jon Steinmetz. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”

Huser said that his company is not against skating or hockey.

“It’s a great family activity,” he said, but again added that he didn’t feel the city had the authority to approve this particular case.

Several of Burnham’s neighbors were also present at the meeting, and voiced support for their neighbor’s project.

Jeff Smith, who lives two houses down from the Burnhams, stated that Burnham uses a lot of his own funds for things like electricity and water to make this happen so the people in the area have a rink to play on.

It was noted the project was done in the same location last year, and that, at that time, the developer owned the land. No permission was granted at that time for such a project, Huser said. Burnham admitted that there may be one or two neighbors this year that may not have been talked to, but said overall, he felt the support from the community was there for the project.

Burnham added that if this was a covenant issue, he would like to see it enforced fairly across the board, and noted other covenant issues he felt were not being enforced, including people having dog kennels on the sides of their homes, and there being homes without sod in place.

He added that before long, the developer would be done and will have moved on from the area, while Burnham and his neighbors plan on being there awhile.

Huser was asked if he was still developing the area, which he stated he was.

City staff was directed to come up with a policy for such use of city land, and other instances that may come up in the future.

“Most people don’t even ask for permission,” Steinmetz said. “They just do it.”

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