By Ivan Raconteur
Just days before a contractor was scheduled to finish construction of the Dakota Rail Regional Trail in Carver County, with no access from the west, an agreement was reached to extend the trail to McLeod County Road 23, which could provide trail access from a paved surface.
More than 60 people attended a special city council meeting in Lester Prairie Thursday to discuss the future of the Dakota Rail Regional Trail in McLeod County.
The people spoke, the council listened, and a proposal to extend the trail 950 feet from the Carver County line to the first road approach along McLeod County Road 23 moved forward.
Lester Prairie Mayor Andy Heimerl called the meeting to order and explained the purpose of the meeting.
Park Commission Member Chris Schultz and McLeod County Parks Administrator Al Koglin provided background on the process to try to get the trail developed.
Schulz said the contractor that is working on paving the trail from Mayer to the McLeod County line expected to finish the work this week.
The deadline to let the contractor know if McLeod County was going to move forward with developing the first 950 feet of trail was today (Oct. 15).
Koglin explained that the McLeod County Rail Authority, which owns the portion of the Dakota Rail corridor in McLeod County, applied for a Legacy grant to develop the trail to McLeod County Road 1 on the west side of Lester Prairie.
The rail authority will not find out for five or six weeks whether the grant application will be funded.
A similar application last year was close, but scored lower than other applications, Koglin said.
Schultz said even if the grant is approved, it will take a collaborative effort to get the trail completed.
Heimerl opened the floor to residents. About an hour of civil, respectful, and sometimes humorous discussion took place.
Resident Jake Hertel asked the council members who voted against using about $9,000 in city funds to pay for the trail extension at the last council meeting, to explain their reasons for voting the way they did.
Council Member Ron Foust said he is opposed to using city funds outside of the city limits. The proposed trail extension is in Bergen Township.
Foust said he is in favor of the trail, but against using city funds outside the city.
Foust also said he is concerned about safety issues for people using the county road to get to the trail access, and he is concerned about parking for trail users.
Foust suggested people should be patient, and eventually Legacy funds will be available to develop the trail.
Council Member Eric Angvall said he is opposed to spending city money in the township, and said the expense was not budgeted.
Angvall said using the county road to access the trail would be dangerous.
Council Member Bob Messer, who voted in favor of the city paying for the trail extension, said he rides his bike on the streets now, and riding on the trail would be safer.
Schultz said it would be most economical to complete the trail extension now, since McLeod County can use the same contractor that is already working on the Carver County portion of the trail.
“Why not take advantage of the people and equipment that are already there?” asked Heimerl, who also voted in favor of the extension.
Resident Stan Ehrke asked why the grant application was not funded last year.
Koglin said there is a rating process, and, while the project scored high, others scored higher.
Ehrke asked about the funding for the proposed extension.
Schultz said the estimated cost is $26,826.
Koglin said the McLeod County Rail Authority has committed to paying $15,000.
Schultz said he has commitments for $4,000 in private donations.
This leaves a balance of about $7,826.
Ehrke asked how much the total cost would be to extend the trail from the county line to McLeod County Road 1.
Koglin said the total grant application is for $468,000.
Ehrke asked if a trailhead like the one in Mayer is part of the plan for the future in Lester Prairie.
Heimerl noted the trail runs through Central Square Park in downtown Lester Prairie, and said one of the selling points when the park was developed was that it would be a point of interest for trail users.
Koglin noted he submitted a photo of the park along with the grant application.
Ehrke asked why the contractor had already been working on the trail in the area of the proposed 950-foot extension.
Koglin said Carver County got permission and an easement to use the road approach for access for construction equipment.
Resident Sue Heimerl said the current condition of the McLeod County portion of the trail is terrible to walk on, and if something is not done, trail users will have to drive to New Germany to get on the trail.
Several residents said they have driven to Mayer to access the trail, and noted the trailhead there is often busy. Many noted the high volume of use they have seen on the trail.
Regarding the safety concerns, Craig Heimerl said he lives in the Prairie Ridge development, and he and his family do a lot of biking on McLeod County Road 9.
He said riding on roads is a matter of personal responsibility.
Resident Shirley Dibb said it always takes Lester Prairie a long time to get started on projects.
She said making a start by completing the 950-foot extension would show effort on the part of the city, and may be an asset in getting a Legacy grant.
Dibb said she understands the safety concern, but noted riding on any street can be dangerous.
“I think it’s time to start,” Dibb said. “Let’s get going. Let’s get the show on the road.”
Many in the audience voiced approval for this suggestion.
Regarding spending city funds outside the city, Heimerl said he consulted the city attorney, and learned it is “perfectly OK” to do so.”
Messer said spending the money on the extension would be an investment in Lester Prairie. He said it would be an asset for city residents, and would bring people from outside into the city.
Resident Ed Mlynar acknowledged that there are concerns, such as safety and parking, but said these roadblocks can be overcome.
Mlynar mentioned several Lester Prairie businesses, and how they could benefit from the trail bringing people into the community.
He also mentioned houses that are for sale in the city, and said people who visit the city using the trail may consider moving there.
He encouraged the council to reconsider its decision and support the trail extension.
Resident Jim Moller said he spent some time working in Winsted, and was amazed at how much bicycle traffic came into town every day (from the Luce Line State Trail).
Foust said all residents pay taxes to McLeod County, and said the county commissioner who represents Lester Prairie (Ray Bayerl) is not in favor of the trail project.
One resident noted that several years ago, the city spent money on a survey, and residents at the time said they wanted a walking path. She noted that nothing was done, and now, residents are telling the council again they are in favor of a trail. She said the city has to start somewhere.
Mlynar referred to the $4,000 in private donations that was already committed for the 950-foot extension, and said he is willing to make a donation to get the project done.
Resident Douglas Jilek said he would put in whatever Mlynar put in, then said he would double it.
Mlynar said he would donate $1,000, and Jilek agreed to donate $2,000.
The total estimated cost is $26,826. After the $15,000 from the McLeod County Rail Authority, and the $7,000 in private donations, this leaves a balance of $4,826.
Ehrke said the city has money that could be used for the project, including money in the economic development fund.
“I call this economic development,” Ehrke said.
Heimerl said there is also money in the park reserve fund that could be used to pay for the trail extension, and made a motion to use $4,826 in park reserve funds to pay for the project. The motion passed unanimously.
“We’ll get it done,” Heimerl said.
Herald Journal learned Friday from the McLeod County Attorney’s office that there is an issue related to ownership of the road approach along McLeod County Road 23, and the right to use it. The project depends on access to the trail, and there are issues that will need to be resolved before the project can move forward.