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Woodbury City Council candidates answer questions on Gold Line, aquifers, pollinators

Woodbury City Council candidates met one final time ahead of this year's election, where voters will be asked to pick two new city leaders from the 10 possible candidates.

With the Nov. 8 election just days away, candidates fielded questions from voters on a host of topics, including the proposed Gold Line bus route, strains on the local aquifer and other key issues during the discussion at City Hall.

About 60 people attended the event sponsored by the League of Women Voters Woodbury-Cottage Grove.

All but one of the 10 candidates who will appear on ballots accepted in the league's invitation.

Longtime council member Paul Rebholz is not seeking a fourth term, leaving only incumbent Amy Scoggins vying for one of two open seats.

For voters, the discussion was the second public appearance candidates have made, with the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce holding a similar event Oct. 11.

High cost of the Gold Line

Candidates expressed mixed support when asked for their thoughts on the proposed Gold Line bus-rapid transit (BRT) project that will connect downtown St. Paul with its eastern suburbs. The Gateway Corridor Commission, a body of public officials and other local government agencies, recently selected a potential route that would see a bridge connect Woodbury and Oakdale as the bus route runs on Bielenberg Drive with a terminus at Woodbury Village shopping center.

The commission needed to select a new route for the line's eastern end following Lake Elmo's withdraw from the project.

Former Woodbury Planning Commission chairman and council candidate Edward Nemetz said he supports the Gold Line because current bus routes serving Woodbury do not run during off-peak times. Express buses, he said, are "inadequate for most people because they only work during rush hour going one direction."

With an aging demographic and growing development in Woodbury, Nemetz said having the rapid, all-day service will be needed in the future.

Echoing this point, candidate Tom Owens said he sees opportunity in the project after earlier stating the city's aging population will see more senior adults than school-aged children in the coming decades.

"This is our opportunity to see how we can leverage the Gold Line to enhance our community for all of us," Owens said.

Candidate Joseph Hernandez, who holds a Ph.D in engineering, said he felt the line would help further connect Woodbury with the rest of the metro, as well as make Woodbury a hub for entertainment, business and pleasure.

Other candidates responded cautiously, with concerns mainly touching on the project's estimate $460 million price tag, as well as a need for more information before pledging full support.

Candidate John Jarrett, who owns a business in Fridley, expressed skepticism of the project's high cost and uncertainty about the cost per ride.

"Nobody has said how much it's going to cost the person using it," Jarrett said. "And I'd really like to see what the real cost is going to be."

He added that he'd prefer an extended rail system instead buses that run along a fixed path.

With more demand for transit from millennials and businesses, candidate Andrea Date said, she supports the need for more transit options in the area because it may yield economic and social benefits.

Including bus routes into the city's comprehensive plan is something retired firefighter/emergency medical technician Bill Braun said he'd like to see.

Without observing future growth and need to get workers to where they need to go, "it can actually be an albatross that stunts our future development," Braun said.

Candidate Mike Litgen said more information about the cost and benefits of the route is needed and suggested using idle school buses during the summer to run the route in order to determine potential usage.

Though candidate Tim Swanson said he's wary of the cost, the Gold Line should be assessed with a long-term vision.

"We'll find out soon enough if this is something we can afford," Swanson said, after arguing there is an opportunity cost to not doing certain projects. "I think it's very important to continue to pursue the project."

Incumbent Amy Scoggins expressed a similar point, saying that though she feels there's a demand for more public transit in the east metro, more information about the project is still needed.

"Traffic is just growing in the Twin Cities," Scoggins said. "It's not decreasing, so I definitely think we need to continue this process."

The Gateway Corridor Commission expects to select a route by the end of the year following an ongoing public comment period.

Regional water conservation

State officials have raised concerns about water security and water levels in underground aquifers following years of plummeting water levels at White Bear Lake.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), communities drawing water from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer — which spans across much of Washington, Ramsey and Anoka counties — may need to find other water sources in the next two decades if water usage continues at its current rate.

Woodbury has set the lofty goal of keeping water at or below its 2014 usage level while wrestling with a growing residential and commercial population. Much of the city's water use in the summer comes from lawn irrigation.

In past interviews with the Bulletin, Woodbury utilities supervisor Jim Westerman has warned of the high costs associated with needing to build new wells or draw water from rivers.

During the Oct. 25 election discussion, candidates were asked what water conservation efforts they would propose if elected.

Diminishing water levels in the aquifer is an issue Date said she worked on in her role as a DNR planning director. She too warned of the potential ramifications the city might face if it continues drawing water at current rates.

"If we don't do something about it, the DNR will force us to," Date said.

Both Swanson and Scoggins said curbing irrigation for lawn use would be one of their goals in conservation efforts.

Swanson pointed to potential incentive programs for residents — much like an effort going into effect for businesses in Woodbury next year — as a way to lower overall water use.

Because the aquifer spans multiple cities and is recharged north of the metro, candidates like Nemetz and Jarrett said regional cooperation is needed.

Jarrett was at a momentary loss of words while suggesting the formation of a new organization to address these concerns.

"I can't believe I'm actually going to say this, but I think that another organization or government agency needs to be formed," he said, adding that he imagines it to be similar to a watershed district that could reach multiple cities.

Hernandez said he'd recommend increasing storm ponds, as well as looking to river water as another source to cut down on water being pumped from the aquifer.

While conservation helps, Braun said he feels overall water quality should be included as part of a larger conservation effort.

Litgen, bucking many of the candidates' thoughts, said that if the aquifer were to run out tomorrow, the city has several solutions, including the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, as well as Lake Superior. Companies like Ecolab and the 3M Co. would be able to provide treatment options, he added

"We have solutions around us," Litgen said. "We can be more creative. I don't feel we need to limit ourselves."

Bees and butterflies

Candidates also weighed in on whether they'd support a city-wide resolution to make Woodbury a "pollinator-safe city," which would include certain measures to protect bees and butterflies.

Though some candidates felt they'd need to know more about what this would entail, most expressed support for protecting pollinators because of their vital role in food creation and the environment.

Learn more

Tuesday's discussion is also available in full online on the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission's website.

Candidates running for District 53 State Senate and House also took part in a discussion prior to Woodbury City Council candidates that same evening.