Playing Hardball

A fight over the fate of a public park turns ugly in Anoka

It's gorgeous outside. The perfect day for a walk in the park. So John Loes is ambling down what he jokingly refers to as "the road to nowhere"--a smooth, freshly laid swath of blacktop just off Anoka County Highway 116 east of the Rum River, on the northern edge of Anoka's city limits. Part of the new road arcs into the parking lot of the nearly completed Rum River branch of the Anoka County Library. A second segment--the aforementioned road to nowhere--extends beyond the library about 30 yards, then comes to a dead end at the entrance to what has long been known as Rum River Park North. At least that's how the signs on the nearby foot trails refer to the scenic, 320-acre mix of oak savanna, pine forest, grassland, and marsh. But a few years ago development-minded city officials, eyeballing the park for its real estate potential, began referring to the place by a different name--one that conjures images of a tony subdivision: "North Pointe."

As Loes surveys the shiny new $5.3 million library, he sighs. "This," he says disdainfully, "is the Trojan horse." A 42-year-old family doctor and father of five, Loes has a bookish air. His face is open, framed by a boyish haircut, and his manner is so mild you half expect him to break into a chorus from Barney. But on the subject of the Anoka City Council, the good doctor's easy smile cracks. "The more I've gotten involved with this, the more inflamed I get," he explains, exasperated. "You know, the vast majority of people around here want to leave the park as it is. But we've got a real problem with the city council."

Dr. John Loes, on the banks of the beloved but threatened Rum River
Dr. John Loes, on the banks of the beloved but threatened Rum River

Last year Loes filed a civil lawsuit charging that the city violated state law by failing to properly examine the environmental impact of the library project. To date he figures the suit--which is still pending before Anoka County District Court--has cost him some $5,000 in attorney's fees. And Loes says he has also spent another "couple grand" fighting off misdemeanor criminal charges stemming from a tussle he had last spring over access to public documents. Late last month the city fired off the most recent salvo in the continuing dispute, arguing that Loes's original lawsuit is frivolous and asking the court to stick the doctor and his lawyer, Brian Bates, with more than $9,000 in legal fees.

Loes assumed a leading role in the battle over the park about a year and a half ago, after attending a meeting of the social-concerns group at his church, St. Stephen's in Anoka. That night he met Mary Handrick, a physical education teacher and founder of a citizens group called Protect Our Parks. Since the mid-Nineties Handrick and her allies had been keeping an eye on city council members who were considering the use of parkland to "upscale" the city's largely blue-collar housing stock. They had also campaigned to raise awareness of the park's value, distributing flyers and bumper stickers, organizing petition drives, and sponsoring nature tours. For Loes the issue struck a chord. He had moved his family from Duluth to Ramsey--which abuts Anoka--five years ago. From the back deck of his home he enjoys a panoramic view of the park, and, as an avid outdoorsman, he has become beguiled by its wide variety of flora and fauna.

Local preservationists like Loes and Handrick aren't the only ones who believe the place is special. According to a 1996 memo sent to the city from Department of Natural Resources ecologist Hannah Dunevitz, Rum River Park North constitutes "possibly the most significant natural resource in Anoka." In that same memo Dunevitz urges the city to leave the park undeveloped; a sentiment echoed in a unanimous resolution issued last year by the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Retired Anoka Senior High School science teacher Lyle Bradley, who has been visiting and studying Rum River for more than four decades, notes that the presence of the nearly extinct oak savanna--a once dominant forest type indigenous to southern Minnesota--merits special consideration. The park, he adds, is also host to threatened or endangered species, such as the Blandings turtle, both the eastern and western hognose snakes, and more than 80 varieties of songbirds. "Other communities are trying their darnedest to buy open land, and here in Anoka they want to develop it," Bradley laments. "It just doesn't make any sense."

But Anoka City Council member Mark Freeburg, a real estate agent who has been a vocal proponent of opening "at least part of the park" to development, argues that critics have overlooked the city's need for more quality housing. "It seems like a no-brainer to me," he says. "Anoka's an old town with a lot of old houses and a lot of older people need to move out of town to find the right type of housing. And we've got all this land just sitting there."

Freeburg disputes the notion that the public at large would be opposed to a "sensible" compromise, contending that Protect Our Parks is overstating its support. "You can get a small group of people who are against something and they can make it sound like the whole world's against it. But I hear from a lot of people who say, 'When are you gonna do something with that land?'" he says.

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