City to review appeal on watershed decisionThe city of Woodbury will review its legal case in a watershed boundary dispute after a state board recently approved a citizen petition that accomplishes much of what the city wanted.
By: Scott Wente, Woodbury Bulletin
The city of Woodbury will review its legal case in a watershed boundary dispute after a state board recently approved a citizen petition that accomplishes much of what the city wanted.
But just as Woodbury considers withdrawing its court appeal, the city of Cottage Grove is weighing whether to take legal action challenging the recent action.
The neighboring cities are on opposite sides of a battle over water management in south Washington County.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources in May dissolved the Lower St. Croix Watershed Management Organization and drew new, larger boundaries for the South Washington and Valley Branch watershed districts. Woodbury appealed to undo that action.
In a separate move, Woodbury resident Dan Belka led a citizen petition objecting to the May decision and seeking to change the watershed boundaries so that they follow a naturally occurring hydrological divide between the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.
The Board of Soil and Water Resources supported Belka’s petition in a 10-9 vote Dec. 16, after staff and a committee of board members recommended the change.
“To be honest, I’ve always thought that the petition was asking for the eminently reasonable thing to do – to put the watershed boundary on the hydrological boundary,” Belka said in a recent interview.
The boundary proposed in the petition is in line with how watershed boundaries have been established elsewhere in Minnesota, said Jim Haertel, metro region supervisor for the Board of Water and Soil Resources.
“Most watershed districts really are drawn quite closely along a naturally occurring watershed boundary,” he said, noting that no other watershed district in Minnesota is divided between two major river watersheds.
Denmark Township and the city of Cottage Grove were leading proponents of the board’s original decision. They argued that their boundaries, which put each community in just the South Washington Watershed District, would provide better water management.
Denmark Township and Cottage Grove said their proposal, approved in May, also would have made development easier for residents. There are some Denmark Township landowners with parcels in both the South Washington and Valley Branch watersheds, if the watershed boundaries follow the Mississippi-St. Croix hydrological divide, as Woodbury wants. The township, in particular, argues that could create different water-management standards for the same project.
Communities split on issue
Denmark Township officials were doubtful that their position – opposing the citizen petition – would prevail after it became clear that Board of Soil and Water Resources staff supported the petition.
“That did not look good,” township attorney Sarah Sonsalla admitted. “Basically, the cards were stacked against us.”
Woodbury has been a chief opponent of the plan by its neighboring communities. It went to the Court of Appeals to argue that the boundaries resulting from the May decision were drawn for political reasons, primarily favoring Denmark Township. Woodbury also said it was excluded from the planning process.
Additionally, the city has raised concerns about the potential for a change in how watershed projects are funded that could cost Woodbury property taxpayers more. Watershed officials said that change is unlikely.
The Woodbury appeal would undo decisions made since May and re-establish the Lower St. Croix Watershed Management Organization.
Woodbury City Council members plan to meet with the city attorney in January and will consider whether to withdraw the appeal.
“For us, the (citizen) petition resolves our concerns,” Woodbury city administrator Clint Gridley said. “Now, the council will have to weigh if they wish to go one step further to say, ‘This whole thing shouldn’t have happened to begin with.’”
The state board’s recent reversal angered Cottage Grove officials. They said that board members mischaracterized the level of opposition to changes sought by Woodbury and ignored the wishes of other municipalities.
“Frankly, our level of trust in the process … has been significantly impacted by this whole thing,” Cottage Grove administrator Ryan Schroeder said. “We feel it has not been an open and unbiased process.”
Cottage Grove is considering whether to appeal the board’s recent decision. A 30-day window to challenge it closes in mid-January.
“We could have dueling appeals in the Court of Appeals,” said Matt Moore, South Washington Watershed District administrator.
There are financial considerations related to a court appeal. Woodbury, for instance, paid $12,313.60 in legal fees through November for its appeal. Taxpayers ultimately foot that bill.
Officials acknowledge the work of watershed districts flows well under the radar of most Washington County residents, even though regional water management is an important issue.
“It probably really doesn’t affect the normal person,” Moore said. “A resident isn’t going to see any major change in what we do whether we have the Lower St. Croix Watershed Management Organization or we don’t have (it).”
However, watershed organizations are funded with property tax revenue and local assessments, so local residents have a financial stake in how they operate.
“A lot of times for people, it’s their pocketbook,” Haertel said.
Bulletin reporter Jon Avise contributed to this story.