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EAW ordered for RV park wall

In a close vote Tuesday, the Detroit Lakes City Council decided that a 290-foot-long concrete wall -- ranging in height from 8 feet to 11 feet, and eliminating a steep bluff along the Pelican River -- does have the potential for "significant environmental impact" and actually is a "substantial change" in the River Hills RV Park project.

The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to require developer Patrick Onstad to go through the environmental assessment worksheet process for that portion of his 130-unit project.

Voting to require the EAW were aldermen Bruce Imholte, who made the motion, James Hannon, Jim Anderson and Leonard Heltemes.

Voting against were aldermen Dave Aune, Walt Tollefson and G.L. Tucker.

Vice Mayor Mat Brenk did not vote. He was filling in for Mayor Larry Buboltz, who is recovering from heart surgery. Alderman Ron Zeman was unable to attend the meeting.

Onstad said the retaining wall, partially built and then put on hold pending a city building permit, is needed to control runoff from six RV sites that will overlook the Pelican River.

But others at the meeting said the six sites are merely needed to improve finances for the RV park, and could easily be moved elsewhere or not built at all, eliminating the need for the retaining wall.

The city should not put profits for one developer above the public good, Imholte said in an impassioned and angry speech prior to the vote.

"We're talking about a football (field) length wall, 8 feet high... how you can not admit it's a significant change to the EAW is beyond my comprehension," he said. "In six years on the council, I've sat and argued that planned development and concern for the environment are not mutually exclusive -- but there has not been one vote that has given the benefit of the doubt to the environment and not to the developer... it's very frustrating."

Prior to the vote, Heltemes argued for an EAW.

"To pass this, to address the issues that have been raised, is the only way to go," he said. "The EAW process is the way these things get resolved."

Dennis Kral, president of the Pelican River Watershed District, accused the RV park developers of essentially sneaking the retaining wall into the plans after the project had already gone through the EAW and initial platting process.

"The (city council) people sitting in this room were as equally surprised by this wall as we were," he said.

The wall is deceptive in that it was never brought up in planning meetings and is not listed on map legends, he said, although an unmarked solid line appears on the maps, somewhat like the dotted black line used to denote a silt fence.

"This is pretty significant," he said. "If this had been properly labeled and discussed there'd be no need for a (revised) EAW. This has come up well after the agencies reviewed the plans."

Detroit Lakes attorney Carl Malmstrom, who represents the developer, argued that an amended EAW process was not needed. The development has already been scaled back from 175 units, with 16 overlooking the river, he said, adding that it's not unusual for stormwater, grading and other plans not to be available when the EAW is being done.

"Clearly it could have been better labeled on the plans, but nevertheless it is our contention that the plans for the wall were there (originally)," he said.

"Would the city require an EAW for a single home? That's the context we should put this in," Malmstrom added, since fill for the retaining wall amounts to about 1,200 cubic yards, or about the same as would be excavated in the construction of two homes.

Requiring an EAW would be a "rather meaningless exercise" in this instance, he said.

Patrick Kenney, attorney for Lakeview Township, noted that the 16 units originally proposed for along the river were further back than the six currently proposed, and that the city upped the number of sites from about 100 to 130 after the EAW was completed last year.

He said the DNR questioned whether enough information was released by the developer at the time of the original EAW.

The city's shoreland ordinance does not allow clearing of vegetation on steep slopes, and the developer promised not to do any such clearing when questioned during the EAW process, Kenney said.

"Well, there has been intensive vegetation clearing on a steep slope" to build the wall, he said. "Everyone took them at their word that they wouldn't be doing this -- you can see that they did," Kenney added.

The shoreland ordinance calls for preserving natural shoreland beauty, he continued.

"A 300-foot wall within 50 feet of the river -- does that preserve shoreland aesthetics?" Kenney asked.

The council had concerns about the environmental impact of a walking path originally proposed for the general area of the wall, so it stands to reason an EAW is needed to look at the wall's impact, he added.

The retaining wall and six units planned for atop the wall clearly violate the city shoreland ordinance, said Henry VanOffelen, a Detroit Lakes-based scientist with the Center for Environmental Advocacy.

In a letter to the council, he quoted the city ordinance: "Each lot in a proposed subdivision must be suitable in its natural state for the proposed use with minimal alteration."

If the six lots qualified, the big retaining wall would not be necessary, he said.

Add in the ordinance's restrictions governing construction on steep slopes, VanOffelen wrote, and "clearly the ordinance prohibits this wall and probably many of the current activities near it."

Approving the wall will set a bad precedent, he said, adding: "If this wall is justified for stormwater purposes, what is going to stop others with unsuitable shoreland from proposing large retaining walls to get closer to the water?"

VanOffelen called on the council to follow an option presented by city staff: "Remove the wall, restore the bank and move (the six) units to an alternate location."