Ravenous ravine: Brainerd council, residents disagree over responsibility for gully formation

Before moving forward with a project to prevent further expansion of the gully, Brainerd city officials want to know if they're legally responsible for it.

With her husband Carl's first bridge in the background, Karen Schirmer looks up Thursday, June 24, 2021, at exposed tree roots in the ravine behind their home on Ridge Court in south Brainerd.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Should the city of Brainerd be financially responsible for a large gully that has expanded over the years and threatened homes and yards?

Some city officials don’t think so, but residents do.

City Council members are going to seek a legal opinion on the matter before moving forward. The decision comes after the council denied a bid for engineering services for a gully remediation project during the meeting Monday, March 6.

City officials started discussing a project to combat expansion of the south Brainerd gully, which is roughly 40 feet deep and 40 feet wide in some areas, in summer 2021.

Part of the ravine sits behind the home of Carl and Karen Schirmer, who live on a cul-de-sac at the end of Ridge Court, just north of Buffalo Hills Lane. Karen Schirmer spoke in 2021 about the large trees she and her husband have lost to the gully after it has expanded over the past 30 years since they moved in. At first, it was small enough to where Carl built a little knee-high bridge over it. But that bridge has since fallen into the depths of the ravine and has been replaced with one about 9 feet above the bottom.


Back in 2021, former City Engineer Paul Sandy told the council that city staff had been aware of the issue for years, though the erosion speed recently quickened.

The gully starts near the intersection of Carol and Buffalo Hills lanes and dates back to at least 1939, when it can be seen from aerial photographs taken by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. As more streets were constructed and development occurred in the area, the impervious surface coverage increased, and along with it came an increase in the amount of runoff diverted to that channel.

The development also resulted in a decrease of the amount of time stormwater takes to get from Point A to Point B, which increases the likelihood that water channelizes and erodes certain soil types. This occurrence, combined with the sandy soils seen throughout Brainerd, created the gully that exists today.

Gully aerial shots
Side-by-side aerial shots of the gully in south Brainerd show the gorge already having formed in 1939, left. It has expanded significantly today.

To remedy the issue, the proposed project would see storm sewer pipes and structures placed in the gully and backfill the pipe to bring the water to an area where it can be discharged safely without eroding the surrounding soil.

Not only would this remediation stop the gully from creeping up on nearby residences, it would also help the city with state permitting.

I have a little bit of a thought that this is like complaining when you buy a house next to the airport or next to the railroad or next to BIR, and then you complain about the noise.
Brainerd City Council President Council Kelly Bevans

Stormwater in Brainerd is regulated by the city’s municipal separate storm sewer system, or MS4, permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The city is responsible for all stormwater within its system and infrastructure. No matter where the stormwater originates, once it enters Brainerd’s infrastructure and outlet system, it becomes the city’s issue.

The city’s MS4 permit will be reissued in 2026 for the next five years, and at that time the city will be responsible for the total maximum daily load of sediment it can discharge into the Mississippi River. The river is already impaired for total suspended solids, which means it is having a hard time supporting fish and other aquatic life due to the amount of sediment in the water. The gully remediation project will reduce the sediment going into the river, and the city will be able to take credit for that occurrence, satisfying permit requirements.

The project is also important for the health of Little Buffalo Creek, as large sediment deposits can be seen in the creek from Rotary Park.


The project

The preliminary project cost was estimated at $1,219,000. The city received a Clean Water Fund grant for $975,000, requiring a local match of 20% — or $244,000 — from the city. These funds are proposed to come out of the city’s storm sewer utility enterprise fund.

Council members recently received bids for the engineering portion of the costs. When City Engineer/Public Works Director Jessie Dehn first looked at bids, he said he only contacted one firm — Bolton and Menk — for the job, as he said other local firms, like Widseth and Short Elliott Hendrickson were already engaged in large projects for the city, so he did not want to interrupt those projects and desired to give another local firm the business.

The bid from Bolton and Menk came in at $75,932. However, council members asked for more bids last month in order to ensure they were paying the best price for services. Dehn presented two more bids to the council Monday — one from Widseth and one from SEH. The Widseth bid came in slightly lower at $71,972, while the SEH bid was $64,130, nearly $12,000 cheaper than that of Bolton and Menk.

Karen Schirmer stands at the bottom of a ravine on her property Thursday, June 24, 2021, on the 200 block of Ridge Court in Brainerd.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While Dehn said the firms were instructed to keep their bids within the same scope of work as Bolton and Menk had, the bid from Bolton and Menk was still available for those firms to look at before submitting their proposals. Council member Jeff Czeczok brought this point up during the council’s Safety and Public Works Committee meeting Monday, saying he wouldn’t feel right going with the lower bid even if it does mean saving money.

City Attorney Joe Langel assured the council there would be no legal ramifications with going with the lower bid and asked if it would be to the taxpayers’ advantage to choose the more expensive option just because council members were uncomfortable with the bidding process.

Tiffany Stenglein said she was divided on the issue but still made a motion to recommend council approval of the bid from SEH. That motion passed 2-1, with Mike O’Day also in favor and Czeczok opposed.

During the full council meeting that followed Monday, council member Gabe Johnson brought up the same point Czeczok did, saying he could not support SEH getting the bid when engineers were able to see Bolton and Menk’s bid ahead of time.

Who’s responsible?

Bids aside, conversation eventually turned to whether the city should even have to pay for the gully to begin with. Council President Kelly Bevans said he has yet to hear a legal opinion saying the gully is officially the city’s responsibility, and without that, he won’t support putting a dime into the project.


“I have a little bit of a thought that this is like complaining when you buy a house next to the airport or next to the railroad or next to BIR (Brainerd International Raceway), and then you complain about the noise,” Bevans said.

Johnson said he would support the project if the portion of cost not covered by the grant was assessed to affected property owners instead of coming from the city’s storm sewer fund.

“Taxing all of the taxpayers to benefit a dozen houses doesn’t seem right,” Johnson said.

Mayor Dave Badeaux also spoke against funding the project, as he has done in the past. He pointed to the aerial photos from 1939 already showing the gully’s formation before there was any development nearby.

More Brainerd City Council coverage

“We’re talking about probably — potentially — a 100,000-year-old depression,” Badeaux said. “And taking responsibility for that just seems really inappropriate considering all the other waterways and depressions we have in the city. Are we then going to start looking at all those projects? I think it’s just a really slippery slope to get involved in.”

Badeaux’s opposition was not reflected in the council’s vote, as he does not vote except in the case of a tie, but O’Day’s motion to accept the bid from SEH still failed 2-5, with only he and Stenglein in favor.

Bevans then asked if anyone would make a motion to refer the issue to the city’s legal counsel for an opinion on who is financially responsible. Johnson made that motion, which passed unanimously.

When asked by phone later in the week if she was on board with the idea of an assessment for the project, Karen Schrimer said absolutely not. While she said she believes in assessments for road projects — like the Buffalo Hills Lane reconstruction that happened a few years ago — she’s against that funding mechanism for this project because she believes it’s the city’s fault.


While the gully existed on a smaller scale before any houses were there, Dehn said some of its expansion can be linked to development south of Buffalo Hills Lane.

“There’s no stormwater controls that are there, so when it does rain on the impervious areas through there, it does come at a pretty high clip that does accelerate some of the erosion that we’re seeing north of Buffalo Hills Lane,” Dehn said during a meeting in February. “So the city specifically is not responsible for that, but some of the development that was allowed on the south side is kind of exasperating the issue.”

But because the city allowed that development without having proper stormwater controls in place, Schirmer believes the city should take responsibility and pay for the project.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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