Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Neighbors upset; freeway berm ripped out for second time

Posted on 09 July 2018 by Calvin

Interstate 94 neighbors in part of Merriam Park are eager to have more than $10,000 worth of trees, shrubs and plants replaced as quickly as possible. But they also want assurances from Xcel Energy and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) that sound-muffling plantings won’t be ripped out and bulldozed for a third time.

MnDOT has announced a change in policies that is meant to protect sites where it and community members have invested resources and time. What especially frustrates neighbors is that the vegetation removed in May was paid for through a MnDOT program and that taxpayers will now have to pay again to replace the plantings.

More than three dozen neighbors met with Xcel, MnDOT, Union Park District Council and city representatives June 21 to discuss next steps to replace plantings bulldozed and cut down in May. They reviewed three different replanting plan options for the area between Fry St. and a point near Wheeler St., with the goal of having a selection by early July.

Plans vary by types of tree, shrub and ground cover species, with each plan having more than half a dozen species of trees and shrubs. All three choices would be planned in a way to avoid future interference with overhead power lines, with larger species planted in the area close to the freeway and various mixes of grasses and flowering plants all along the four-block stretch.

MnDOT will then work with neighbors on a timeline for replacing the plantings. Neighbors also want clear procedures, so they are not blindsided by future plans to make changes to the vegetation.

Marcell Walker, a MnDOT ombudsman, apologized on behalf of the state transportation department. “We should have done better communication,” he said.

Jim Pearson, who works in community relations for Xcel, also agreed that more needs to be done in the future to keep the community informed. But Xcel representatives at the meeting continued to defend the work, saying it was necessary to maintain clear zones between power lines and woody vegetation.

At Xcel Energy’s request, MnDOT earlier this year approved a permit for contractors to work in the area that was planted by volunteers a few years ago. Xcel officials said they were concerned that the recent plantings were growing too close to the power lines.

Neighbors argued that the plantings weren’t near the power lines and didn’t need to be chopped down and bulldozed.
“Why does this keep happening and how are you going to fix it?” said neighbor Kathy Flynn. “In four years we’ve been clear-cut twice.”

No notice was given to neighbors that the area would be cleared in May. Neighbors were told by tree service workers that the area would then be treated with herbicide. Xcel representatives said that’s not the case.

Neighbor Jerry Striegel was among neighbors who said the area’s shrubs and trees grew for years with little to no attention. The growth included some invasive species. Area residents would sometimes have to call to have branches trimmed so that traffic signs wouldn’t be obscured.

But the vegetation kept the sound as well as dust levels down. In 2015, neighbors were shocked to find that the berm’s trees and shrubs were cleared. They applied to MnDOT for one of its Community Roadside Landscape Partnership Program grants to restore the plantings in 2016. Under that program, MnDOT pays for the vegetation if volunteers agree to plant and maintain it.

Neighbors and volunteers recruited throughout the area put in hundreds of hours to replant the area using more than $10,000 in public funding. Neighbors used their own garden hoses and buckets of water to keep plantings alive, often in the scorching summer heat. They sought and got a fence and locked gate installed to protect the area. Then in three days, Wright Tree Service cleared almost everything out.

Some neighbors said they miss the flowering trees and lilac bushes, and the wildlife habitat nearby. Others said the vegetation provided an attractive buffer not just for neighbors but also for bicyclists on a recently installed two-way bike lane along St. Anthony. It has a been a noisy and dusty summer without the vegetation barrier. Losing the trees and shrubs has made a difference, said neighbor Lyn Rhodes. “The noise level in my backyard has been insane.”

She and other neighbors said they don’t see nearly as many backyard birds since the vegetation buffer is gone.

But while MnDOT prepared planting options for neighbors to choose from, a future option may be a noise buffering wall. However, Natalie Ries, noise/air quality program supervisor for MnDOT’s Metro Division, said recent sound level readings are below the standards for such a wall. Neighbors could seek to get on the waiting list for a sound wall. But there wasn’t much interest in that June 21.

“I’d like to know when we can start planting again,” said Striegel.

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