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CHATTER COULD BE heard from the hallway. The chairs had already run out and still more people filtered into the small classroom in Maplewood's Conway Recreation Center on a recent Thursday night. A bright-green petition made its way around the room as people sat calmly, waiting for the meeting to begin.
Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Director Greg Mack stepped to the podium, and suddenly everyone wasn't so calm. Question after rapid-fire question, no matter what Mack said, it wasn't the right answer. The only thing the East Side residents in the room wanted to hear was that Mack would spike a plan to build an 8-acre swimming complex at Battle Creek Regional Park, just southeast of the intersection of McKnight and Upper Afton roads.
The proposed swimming area will feature a man-made pond along with multiple buildings for rest rooms, changing rooms, concessions, lifeguards, and the chemical-treatment and water-filtration systems. Add a road and additional parking lots and that means a big change for the relatively untouched park, the locals complained.
"The residents like the park undeveloped," said St. Paul resident Madeline Hart, who organized the meeting. "They just can't leave things alone." Others spoke longingly of the park's trails, trees, and wildlife, which they fear will be ruined by a crowded swimming area. "We don't need it here," said one of Hart's neighbors, noting that there are two other lakes within three miles. Mack countered that the proposed site is "low-quality" and was chosen so that Battle Creek's most natural habitat would remain undisturbed. He also stressed that although the total development will cover eight acres, that's only 3 percent of the 258 acres of land in that particular section of the park.
Besides, the development has been in the works for nearly 20 years, and the money is earmarked specifically for its construction. Back in 1978, a Metropolitan Council study found there was a "demand for an aquatic facility" in the neighborhood. In 1981, a county master plan including the site was approved, but no action was taken toward actually building the swimming area until 1995 when the Met Council finally came up with its $2 million cost.
That touched off a series of questions relating to why, if the plan has existed for 16 years, are residents just now hearing about it? Why did they have to convene their own hearings? A lot has changed since 1981, including the makeup of both the Council and the neighborhood. "They may have needed it then," shouted one woman at the Thursday-night meeting. "But we live here now, and we want woods." There were public hearings, Mack insisted, back in 1981 when the pond was planned and then again in 1995 when the county was securing the financing.
Various people dashed to the map at the front of the room to shove the pond farther from their homes, while the most adamant opponents proclaimed that there should be no site at all. Just two supporters dared to speak. One man from Oakdale wants a swimming area in Battle Creek so that Battle Creek-area residents would stop coming to Tanner's Lake, his "backyard." Another woman favored the pond because it would attract young families to the neighborhood, driving up the price her property would fetch.
The plan is well on its way, Mack says, and needs to pass only one final vote from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners before construction can begin. After that, construction crews will need about six months (excluding winter) to complete the development. If the Board does reject the plan, an amendment could be passed that would delete the swimming area from the master plan entirely. And for the most part, it sounds like the area's county commissioners are surprised that the plan has engendered such vehement opposition. "We want to hear from everyone so we can weigh all the options," says Reinhardt. "It's in the final stages, but we can still say no."
Another meeting has been called for August 13, and residents say they hope District 1 Commissioner Dino Guerin and District 7 Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who oversee two different parts of the Battle Creek area, will attend, because the County Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal in upcoming weeks.
Hart, meanwhile, says she fears the plan is a done deal. Guerin, she says, will probably vote to complete the project. After all, she reasons, if county officials were concerned about neighborhood sentiment, they would have called public hearings themselves. "It's incredibly frustrating and disheartening to know that something like this can go on without anyone knowing."
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