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Crowd gathers for safe routes to schools proposal

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Brainerd council members were faced Tuesday with residents who said a planned sidewalk project was a waste of money negatively affecting their property while others said the city was not taking advantage of a grant would leave the city behind, again.

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At the city’s safety and public works committee meeting before the full council session, residents from northeast Brainerd spoke of being blind sided by the proposal they said would constitute a loss of trees, property and privacy.

After hours of discussion, council member Kelly Bevans made a motion to withdraw the application. Bevans said he thinks there is a tremendous benefit that could be derived from constructing the sidewalks around Garfield by taking advantage of the Safe Routes to School Grant funding.

“If you don’t want them let’s move on, I could argue all day,” Bevans said. “... I want us to make a decision.”

Council President Bonnie Cumberland said she still has a hard time understanding the money argument as federal dollars are there to help sidewalks or other safety projects.

“You’ve been telling us your money in that pot should go to a different community, that befuddles me a little bit,” Cumberland said. “It’s just an unusual thought process for me.”

Council member Dave Pritschet said it wasn’t like taxpayers were going to be refunded, adding the sidewalks instead will be built in another community and the jobs to build it will go there as well.

“To just say no to the money doesn’t make sense to me,” said council member Chip Borkenhagen said.

“I feel I need a little more time,” said Council member Dale Parks. “I do think it’s just fair we do give it every shot.”

The motion to deny failed five to two, with Bevans and council member Mary Koep in favor.

Bevans then made a motion to refer the issue back to safety and public works for the next regular council meeting.

“What do you expect the committee to do?” Koep said, asking if it’s a gambit to wear the people down who came out on a cold night to object. “I don’t personally agree at all to the money is there so you might as well take it.”

That money is out there is not a reason to take it unless there is a need and the people affected want it, Koep said.

Pritschet said he didn’t want to shoot from the hip on a $300,000 to $450,000 project and wanted more time to consider it. The board voted all in favor of referring the issue to the first meeting in February.

Earlier in the night Jeff Hulsether, city engineer, said the sidewalk proposal was not a done deal as the city was proposing applying for grant dollars and he didn’t see the project going forward without it. Hulsether said the city had a chance of being funded to the tune of one in four or one in five.

Borkenhagen asked if there was more time to shape the plan.

“This whole thing has come down the road pretty fast,” Borkenhagen said.

Hulsether said it’s been a condensed process to get the grant in by Feb. 15 but the plan has been worked on for several years.

The city has 38 miles of sidewalk. This proposed project would entail about a mile of sidewalk. The city received a petition of 72 names indicating a lack of interest in the project.

There was no motion for the full council coming out of committee.

Cumberland outlined the options from postponing a ruling to pulling out of grant application entirely.

Cumberland said some topics covered are so emotional, noting the applause and comments from the committee meeting.

“This is not a football game or a soccer game or an award ceremony,” Cumberland said. “If things get chaotic, we don’t get any business done here.”

Cumberland welcomed residents to come forward with questions, new thoughts and a respectful tone.

Residents said when it comes to their property it does become emotional and they wondered if the proposal was just coming forward because grant dollars were available. One resident asked what criteria was used to determine the need for the sidewalks and if other safety items could be looked at, such as stop signs or other modifications and pickup and drop off areas.

“There is a need to make sure that area is a little safer,” one parent said. “There are legitimate concerns for everybody for and against.”

Hulsether said Garfield was the only school in the middle of a residential area with virtually no sidewalks around it. With the funds the city could complete sidewalks on Garfield block and provide additional opportunities to drop off their children and extend sidewalk one block away from the school to start a network going out from the school so they don’t have to compete with bus and parent traffic.

“That’s why Garfield was selected,” Hulsether said. If funded, the sidewalk project wouldn’t begin before 2014.

Council member Gary Scheeler said people think he started the issue, when it actually started in 2009. Scheeler said if awarded the grant, the city could still turn it down.

Guy Green, northeast resident, said when the Safe Routes to School throws out children’s safety it makes it harder for people to speak against it and made them look as though they are not in favor of children.

If people are concerned with children and wanted to teach them about being citizens, they cannot saddled children with 20 trillion dollars in debt, Green said.

Green said in 56 years not a single child was hit by a car by Garfield.

The city has had little sidewalk construction since 1940. North Brainerd has the majority of sidewalks and those sidewalks were originally set up in the 1920s, Hulsether said.

“I would not have bought a house without a sidewalk,” said Marcia Ferris, who said she thinks it adds to the community. Ferris said attending a meeting at Garfield recently meant she had to walk down an icy city street. With the sidewalks, people get out and walk and the community is better because of it, Ferris said.

At the committee meeting, some residents who spoke lived outside the main project area but were listed in the future sidewalk zone.

Koep said: “Let’s give the full story.” Koep said make no mistake those in the future map zone could be looking at a sidewalk project in the not too distant future.

Margaret O’Rourke, northeast resident, said putting in the sidewalk would mean removing a stairway she put up at her home last year.

“I’ve had a number of heart attacks,” O’Rourke said, speaking in regard for the need to take care of and shovel the proposed sidewalk. I can’t shovel what I have now. Out of my six trees I would lose four of them. That’s why I bought the house. I am really regretting moving into Brainerd there is nothing I can do about it now I’m stuck there.”

O’Rourke said she wouldn’t let her grandchildren walk to school as the world isn’t what it was when she was a child and she didn’t think most parents do allow their children to walk to school.

Northside resident Ed Shaw said he lives in a house with a sidewalk used by school children and those out for a walk.

“It’s part of living in a community,” Shaw said. “If we never do anything because it inconveniences a few people, we will never do anything.”

Larry Potter, a K Street resident, said the majority of people living there are retired making upkeep of the sidewalk a difficulty. Potter said the sidewalk will also mean he can’t put in the patio he wanted because of the sidewalks impervious space.

Several residents talked about the proposed sidewalk project as taking away the value of their property. Hulsether said there is no taking of private property and all sidewalks are in the city right of way. As for trees, Hulsether said he understood that concern and sidewalks can meander to avoid trees and sidewalk widths may be reduced to reduce impact on trees.

Even in doing that we know there will be some trees we’ll have to take, Hulsether said, adding it is the city’s policy to replace the tree.

The project proposal is to construct a 5-foot width for sidewalks, down from the city’s normal 6-foot width. Americans With Disabilities Act requires 3 feet and Hulsether said they could drop to that width in certain instances but need to consider wheelchair access and those on crutches.

“We can try to squeeze them a little bit to try to avoid a tree,” Hulsether said.

Three properties may require retaining walls and nearly every property will need to have the driveway shaped. We’re talking about a grant application,” Hulsether said. “We are not talking about going out for bids or awarding a contract.”

Hulsether said the chances of getting the grant funds is about one in five and without those funds little chance of this project going forward.

Hulsether said the plan is to do sidewalks radiating out from Garfield. The overall plan shows a loop route to include other streets and are considered future sidewalks and not proposed for funding with this grant.

Mike Murphy of Baxter said he has eight properties in Brainerd and with taxes said he couldn’t afford this free money.

“It’s not free money,” Murphy said. “It’s coming out of everyone in the state of Minnesota’s pocket. It needs to start stopping here this free money.”

On Jan. 10, a neighborhood meeting was hosted in Garfield Elementary to talk about the application for the grant. The city reported about 40 people attended along with city staff, school representatives and three council members.

The city reported about 500 properties in the Garfield area were sent notices about the meeting.

The application is expected to be before the school board for its Feb. 11 meeting. On Jan. 7, the council pledged $75,000 to match the school districts assessment as part of the $300,000 project. Tuesday, the council planned to discuss authorization of the grant application. The city reported looking at the larger project area, including where the sidewalk construction could be identified in the future, include a total of 110 properties that could be affected. About 50 people attended the council meeting.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
(218) 855-5852
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