Tilting at Highways

War against the planned Hiawatha Avenue extension is being waged on several fronts--but it's an uphill battle.

It's that 1985 environmental study, as it happens, on which the future of the oaks, the spring, and the Kratzes' house now hinge. A group called the Park and River Alliance has filed suit in U.S. District Court charging that the document did not, in fact, follow the law, but instead blatantly violated a federal statute requiring it to explore "prudent and feasible alternatives" before damaging or taking public park, historic, or recreational lands.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsop is scheduled to hear arguments in the case this Friday. If it doesn't rain, says alliance attorney Grant Merritt, the proceedings will begin with a little detour: Alsop has agreed to walk the proposed highway route. "It will be like Aristotle walking in the woods," Merritt chuckles. "We hope the judge will make a philosophical decision."

Merritt is no stranger to this kind of battle. He served as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under Gov. Wendell Anderson, who called MNDoT "the Pentagon of Minnesota." Rails Merritt: "They're huge, they've been around forever, and they think they can outlive the competition. But they've been trying to build this highway for 40 years, and they haven't won yet. And they're not going to win this time."

On Friday, Merritt says, he'll argue that the EIS failed to study what he calls the most environmentally sound option for rebuilding Hiawatha: expanding it along the current route. "They had a little discussion of that, but they just threw it in," he charges. "They never dealt with it in any kind of detail." What's more, he adds, the study failed to evaluate another alternative route proposed by the park board in the 1970s--looping Hiawatha through a residential neighborhood far to the west of Minnehaha.

But those aren't prudent and feasible alternatives, retorts Bill Sierks, the assistant state attorney general who's handling the case. The option of expanding the existing road, Sierks says, was dismissed back in the 1960s because it would have involved razing more than 80 homes and several historic sites. The route around the park was similarly rejected because it would have destroyed up to 200 houses. Even leaving the road the way it is would create environmental damage, Sierks contends, with increasing traffic causing additional noise and pollution. "We analyzed everything right down to the last detail," he concludes. "And we did it right. I wouldn't have recommended going ahead with [fighting the lawsuit] if I thought there was a hole in it."

How long the dispute will take to resolve is anyone's guess. Both sides say they're prepared to take the matter all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Sierks says he hopes it will all be over by the time MNDoT is scheduled to bid out $39 million worth of construction contracts early next year (bringing the price tag for the entire Hiawatha project to close to $83 million, not counting some $400 million that could be spent on a light-rail line in the corridor).

Carol Kratz has read all of the lawyers' arguments, which amount to a file 2 inches thick. It's in one of the stacks of paperwork she has squirreled away under the TV set, in drawers, on the coffee table. The stacks also contain articles about oak savannahs, treatises on urban sprawl, and old newspaper clippings from the freeway fight. "If you'd told me 20 years ago that I was going to get this involved in anything," she muses, "I would have laughed at you. But now this is my life.

"It's hard for Al, with me gone all the time. He used to be able to go out, run errands and things, but not anymore. I keep telling him I'm trying to save our home, save the park. But with the lack of oxygen to his brain, some days he gets it and some days he doesn't. And sometimes I think, 'Why am I doing this; why don't I just move out?'"

Chances are the Kratzes will have to move. At press time Merritt was negotiating with MNDoT for an extension that would allow them to stay in their house past the current June 17 deadline. But eventually, MNDoT has told them, it will take the house regardless of the lawsuit's outcome. "They said we wouldn't like it here with everyone else gone," Carol Kratz says. "And you know, if they wanted the house for the park, I'd give it up in a minute."

She glances around the corner to the breakfast nook, where her husband is cutting slices of toast, crusts carefully removed, into tiny squares for the squirrels. "There's a new one," he says to no one in particular. "Never seen that one before."

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