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."

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.

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

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.

Such sentiments from a city official frustrate Loes, Handrick, and their allies. But it is the city council's actions that have galled them most. After learning of the plans for a new library, built on a ten-acre parcel of parkland donated by the city, Protect Our Parks petitioned the council to perform an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). Among other things, the activists cited a provision of the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act that requires an detailed examination of projects involving 100 or more parking spaces. Because the original architectural drawings for the library lot showed 167 spaces, Protect Our Parks figured they could force an EAW. But shortly after they submitted their request, the library board revised its parking-lot design to include just 92 spaces and, without debate, the city council chose to ignore the petition.

Aggravated, Loes decided it was time to take a closer look at city files concerning both the library and the rest of Rum River Park North. He submitted a written request for the data and, last May, received a signed letter from City Manager Mark Nagel confirming that the files were available for review. Two weeks later Loes and his lawyer examined the documents. Among other things, the paperwork contained sketches from a city consultant, Hakanson Anderson Associates, Inc., detailing how the park property could be developed with townhomes, apartments, and detached houses.

That, Loes says, was "the last straw"; proof that the library was just a politically palatable way to grease the skids for more commercial development. And so the doctor-cum-activist made what he now calls "an agonizing decision" to sue the city. Because some fellow members of Protect Our Parks, which includes a handful of former city council members, were staunchly opposed to litigation, Loes submitted the suit under the name Preserve Our Parks. Six days later, on May 25, 1999, Loes marched up to the city planning office to obtain a copy of the files. There, he says, Anoka City Planning Director Carolyn Braun turned him away, saying that the documents were no longer available because of "pending litigation."

An hour later Loes returned to Braun's office to try again. This time he saw the files he wanted sitting out in plain view. "What happened next I definitely wouldn't do again," Loes recalls with a slight blush. "But I grabbed the files and I put them in my bag with the intention of copying them. I'd brought a camera along for that purpose. But then Carolyn just kind of went ballistic. We had a little tug of war and she claimed I assaulted her. It was really kind of hokey."

Hokey or not, Anoka police were summoned to the office. Loes returned the files after receiving assurances from City Manager Mark Nagel that he would be given an opportunity to review them in the City Attorney's Office. "[Nagel] offered his hand to me, I shook it, and he said, 'We are not going to file charges,'" Loes recalls. "So I asked the police officer if I could go and then I left."

A few days later, though, Loes received a certified letter informing him that he was being charged by the city prosecutor with disorderly conduct, attempted theft, and fifth-degree assault. The charges had serious implications for Loes, whose license to practice medicine would be jeopardized if he were convicted of theft or assault. So last February the doctor entered into a plea bargain, pleading guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct. In exchange the city agreed to drop all other charges. "I think my crime was one of impoliteness more than anything," he says now. "I guess the question is, 'When is it acceptable to be rude to a public official?' And the answer, in Anoka at least, is 'Never.'"

Brian Bates, Loes's attorney, believes that the city's decision to press criminal charges smells of retaliation. "This whole thing is just absurd," Bates says, adding that he takes offense at the city's recent motion to collect legal expenses in the continuing lawsuit. "For a municipality to act this way is extraordinary. And I think what's happening here goes beyond Dr. Loes and the future of Rum River Park North. I believe the city is trying to send a message that anyone who challenges the city on environmental review is taking a grave risk."

City Attorney William Hawkins declines to discuss charges filed against Loes or anything else pertaining to the possible development of the park. "The pleadings speak for themselves, and I really don't have anything else to add," he says. Anoka Mayor Peter Beberg also refuses to address the issue: "We are in litigation and our attorneys have told us not discuss in public." Planning Director Braun did not return City Pages' calls seeking comment regarding her altercation with Loes.

Meanwhile, a ruling on the city's motion to dismiss Loes's lawsuit, along with its motion to collect legal fees, is expected by mid-July. The park's future remains uncertain. "Right now we don't have diddly planned for [the park]," says city council member Freeburg. "So nothing is gonna happen for a while."

That doesn't satisfy Loes and other park preservationists, who believe the city's "no immediate plans" posture is disingenuous. "I want this to be around for my kids," Loes says. As he negotiates his way through the thistle and buckthorn by the edge of the river, he vows to press on with his crusade. "This is a great place," he adds. "And I'm not going to wait to do something until it's too late."

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