Crow Wing County Engineer Tim Bray believes a county proposal to improve County Road 115 has finally turned a corner in favor of the historically controversial project.
Bray gave the Board of Commissioners a recap at its Tuesday, July 24, meeting of the July 9 open house by the county about the roadway-also known as Ojibwa and Nashway roads.
"It was a really positive and upbeat meeting," Bray told the board. "It was not void of those who voiced concerns, but it certainly was a lot different than some of the meetings that we've had over the course of five or six years."
Area residents had packed into Nisswa City Hall on Nov. 29 to voice questions and property concerns about altering the almost 35-year-old winding, scenic road encircling Round Lake.
Poor drainage, issues with the subsurface under the pavement, inadequate sight lines and concerns for pedestrian travel safety-versus property values possibly decreasing and uprooting existing structures and foliage-were issues discussed at that contentious meeting.
After the July 9 open house in Brainerd, however, Bray said there was a desire by residents to move the project along and incorporate it in the county's five‐year highway improvement plan.
"WSB has done a great job of gathering the information and providing that level of detail that we had not been able to provide previously," he said of WSB & Associates of Baxter.
More than 100 were at the July 9 open house where more information was provided by the Baxter-based professional consulting and design firm associated with the proposal.
"And you could tell in the room that there was a lot of positivity that came out of it," Bray said. "We really filled the room. I think we filled every seat that we had set out that day."
Trust had seemed to be in short supply at the Nov. 29 open house in Nisswa that was intended to clear the air about the proposed County Road 115 project that had some up in arms.
"Since that meeting, we have fielded a lot of comments, and we're continuing to post them on the project website," Bray said of the WSB-hosted website at www.crowwing115.com, where layouts and the presentation that was given at the July 9 open house can be viewed online.
The project is located from the south junction to the north junction of County Road 115 and Minnesota Highway 371 and encircles Round Lake for about 5 miles.
"We heard a lot about extending curb and gutter because the 'refined layout' that our consultant presented showed the alternating use of curb and gutter throughout the 5-mile corridor," Bray said of the open house.
Officials estimate the construction cost of the project to be $1 million to $1.25 million per mile and will take more than a year to complete and will be broken into multiple stages.
"Some areas it made sense at this point to not include curb and gutter ... but a really good handful of the residents said, 'I want that in front of my home,'" Bray said.
The primary funding for the proposed project will be the Crow Wing County Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) and local property tax dollars, but Lake Edward Township and Nisswa will likely have some cost-participation obligations, according to the presentation by WSB.
"One of the big things that WSB and our staff really we're able to explain this time was how the use of curb and gutter can really lessen the impacts-in some cases by a whole lot-and that really came through, so we had a lot of calls for extended use of curb and gutter," Bray said.
"We also heard the counter: Curb and gutter detracts from the natural beauty of the road and why we live here. There was far more that were calling for it to be extended and used more."
The County Road 115 corridor is a rural minor collector that connects to Highway 371 on the north and south side of Round Lake and to County Road 127, another rural minor collector which connects to County Highway 3, a major north-south route classified as a "minor arterial."
Residents brought a petition and arguments in support of retaining the scenic road to the county board in 2015, and it was not the first time the board faced opposition to the proposed project.
"We heard quite a bit about load posting-keep the big trucks out of here, both now and in the after condition. We are investigating that it's legal or not, or if that's the right thing to do," Bray said of the July 9 open house.
Residents in 2015 referenced the road's beauty, towering white and Norway pines and
its safety record, saying there has never been a fatality nor a pedestrian involved in a crash.
"I can certainly understand the premise behind that, but we've got to make sure that if we are spending public funds that we can actually limit the amount of trucks that come that road," Bray said.
The construction cost of installing curb, and associated underground piping systems, to handle stormwater runoff is typically higher than construction of ditches. The higher cost of the curb option may be offset by requiring less property acquisition and impacts to vegetation.
"We should seize the momentum that we saw and heard at that meeting, and continue to hear through the comments and emails," Bray said of the recent open house. "I can maybe count on one hand the negative stuff that we've had since the meeting."
Bray annually updates plans for future road improvements to county roads. The 2018-2022 plan was adopted by the board on April 10.
"I think we should seize the momentum and really take a very hard look at getting it in the next five-year (highway improvement) plan, and our next opportunity is 2023," he said.
"Our normal process is for us to go through an evaluation of which projects are on the horizon, and this one is important to look at because there is not only an engineering component but there's also a financial component."
Some area residents had wondered why the roadway could not be overlaid and left as is, but officials contend that a simple resurfacing to improve the smoothness of the road would be a "poor investment" and only addresses part of the challenges the county road faces.
The roadbed is in poor condition and would lead to early deterioration of the roadway surface because the road bed was not designed to for the amount and size of the traffic it sees today when it was originally constructed, according to officials from the county and WSB.
"It seems to me one of the surprising things to me was that WSB and you have done a lot of work identifying the existing right-of-way and the existing layout, and I heard no dispute at all about that," Commissioner Paul Thiede told Bray
"And I thought that was kind of surprising that everybody seemed to be on the same page with the definition of what's currently on the ground, and I think that was a big step in making it a more positive meeting."
The purpose of the proposed County Road 115 improvement project is "to provide a high quality public roadway corridor that is environmentally responsible, safer for all users and maintains the scenic character of the area."
"We found out a lot can fit within the existing right-of-way, and that was something that was not clear in the past," Bray said.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who represents the Ojibwa/Nashway roads area, had also tried to reassure skittish residents openly skeptical of the board's intentions, the highway department and the consulting firm.
"I think the real selling point was the fact that every person who came (to the July 9 open house) could go up and look at the map and see their individual property, and then we had the pictures of what it looked like now, what curb and gutter would look like and if we left it rural," she said.
"I don't think that when we were trying to explain this before people understood at all-because I really didn't-that curb and gutter would make it so that you didn't need to take as many trees down, and that was a real selling point for curb and gutter."
A standard curb and gutter configuration includes a 1- to 2-foot concrete gutter pan where the water runs. A modified 6-inch curb reduces the gutter pan to 6 inches rather than 1 to 2 feet. This modification allows more of the 4-foot shoulder to be a seamless surface and allows for improved conditions for those biking and walking along the corridor, according to officials.
"The people in my district were very happy as long as they could have curb and gutter, and it was scheduled for a lot of my area anyway, so I recommend that we move this forward," Franzen said.
Commissioner Paul Koering said, "We've got to realize that not 100 percent of the people are going to be happy. ... I think people have to realize that live on that road ... they don't own the road. Other people travel that road ... and they have the right to drive on that road."
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom was absent from Tuesday's board meeting.