In this period of accelerating capacity, planning, and implementation, MCWD entered a time of greater public visibility by addressing water quality in Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. City leaders learned the power of MCWD’s broad tax levy, technical expertise, and unique ability to improve water quality in major lake assets. MCWD learned the power of negotiating effective multiparty agreements to reflect true working partnerships and learned the challenging consequences of proceeding with projects such as Long Lake without such partnerships in place.
Along with the accelerated engagement in major projects, the MCWD continued to pursue a strong regulatory program that included drawing lines and rising to challenges with MnDOT and a shoreline contractor, among others. During this period, MCWD also made the significant decision to create its own office and professional staff.

This article is excerpted from MCWD’s Historic Insights and Principles of Success publication, compiled by its Board of Managers and staff as part of a process to evaluate key events over time, extract strategic insights, and document learnings that could be carried forward to guide the future success of the organization.

Board Organization and District Staff

Changes to the District staff and the Board of Managers’ operations reflected the intense activity of this seven-year period. In late 1992, the Board of Managers hired Ellen Sones (née Klanderman) under a contract with the City of Minnetonka to serve as District Coordinator, a role she held until October 1, 1994 while officed in Minnetonka City Hall. During this time, Board meetings shifted from alternating between St. Louis Park City Hall and Wayzata City Hall to being held exclusively at Minnetonka City Hall. Upon terminating the coordination contract with the City of Minnetonka, the District office moved to a private building on Wayzata Boulevard. On December 1, 1995, the District office moved to the Freshwater Foundation.

From October 1994 through February 1995, as the Board of Managers developed a search for new staff, the District relied on the services of the engineer, attorney, and Manager Tom LaBounty. In March 1995, the Board of Managers hired Gene Strommen, a former executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, as District Administrator, and Suzanne Weedman as Assistant Administrator.

Beginning in 1994, the District began to regularly hold two meetings per month, and in 1995 amended its rules to set the District’s regular meeting schedule with two meetings per month. Even two meetings were not always adequate; in August 1995, the Board held four meetings. The Board had six standing committees, with two managers assigned to each committee. For each major District project, the Board assigned two or three members to serve as lead managers for the project.

Gleason Creek Improvement Project

The Gleason Creek Improvement Project, petitioned by the City of Wayzata, involved three primary components that were intended to manage floodwaters and improve water quality. These components were: a new outlet structure and raised elevation for Gleason Lake; stormwater ponds near Lake Minnetonka; and a stormwater pond near Glenbrook. In April 1993, the District held a joint special meeting with the Wayzata City Council to adopt plans and specifications for the project, and adopted a cooperative agreement for the project. Manager LaBounty served as lead manager for the project, which broke ground in July 1993. The construction of the dam and outlet structure at Gleason Lake was delayed until February 1993 due to the need to obtain easements from all lakeshore property owners, a very slow process that resulted in attainment of easements from 75% of owners; and a Phase II environmental site assessment for water quality of a pond upstream of Gleason Lake, offered as an incentive for lakeshore owners to provide easements, which was ultimately ordered in September 1994.

Gleason Lake Outlet, built 1994

During the project, the District encountered funding issues with the City of Wayzata. The Board learned after the execution of a cooperative agreement that the City received a MnDOT grant for its share of the project funding. The Board considered the MnDOT grant a shared resource, and offset half of the MnDOT grant amount in its final payment to the City for the project. The funding dispute was ultimately resolved through mediation.

Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Improvement Project

Cedar Meadows Stormwater Wetland in Minneapolis, built in 1996

In July 1993, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board presented a study of water quality problems within the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, and approached the District to partner on a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Clean Water Partnership grant. Throughout 1993, the District remained in talks with the Park Board, and the District engineer identified two early potential projects: the first, Twin Lakes in St. Louis Park; and the second, Cedar Meadows adjacent to Cedar Lake. The Park Board submitted an application for the Clean Water Partnership grant in October 1993, supported by a letter from the District. During this time and throughout the project, the residents surrounding Twin Lakes actively met as a task force to explore how Twin Lakes could be improved while contributing to improving Cedar Lake’s and the Chain of Lakes’ water quality.

By February 1994, the District and the Park Board received news that MPCA approved the Clean Water Partnership grant, and the two entities began to discuss a work plan and joint agreement. In March 1994, the District learned that the mayor of Minneapolis had designated the project as a high priority, and proposed a summit meeting of the parties, directing District counsel to outline a cooperative agreement. The Board designated Manager Maple, Manager Love, and Manager Blixt as lead managers for the project. In April 1994, the summit meeting was deemed a success. The District emerged as the largest funder of the project through funding from its watershed- wide levy, and also took a leadership role to promote public understanding of the watershed approach to addressing water quality problems in the treasured Chain of Lakes. District counsel was assigned to draft a cooperative agreement, and the Park Board was assigned to draft a work plan.

The parties took several months to negotiate elements of the cooperative agreement, including the shared control of communications and public education between the District and Park Board, and the District’s request for six years of committed street sweeping in the project’s subwatershed from the City of Minneapolis. A Coordinating Board of policy makers for project oversight and governance, an Implementation Committee to drive staff work, and a Communications Committee to coordinate project public relations were established among the parties. Hennepin County was also a partner in the project, taking a role as a project financer. The cooperative agreement was finalized in August 1994, and the District ordered the project at a cost of $2.5 million. The District amended its watershed plan to include project work in September 1994, and the District engineer proceeded with detailed design, specifications, and permitting for the project. The parties participated in a cooperative agreement signing ceremony on November 23, 1994. The Coordinating Board planned to meet quarterly to oversee and govern project progress.

The District presented a viable design in February 1995. The City of St. Louis Park had requested to dredge Twin Lakes to a depth of 6.5 feet, which encountered objections from the DNR, and the design subsequently focused on two wet detention ponds, one near Twin Lakes and one in Cedar Meadows. In April 1995 the Coordinating Board met and resolved ongoing issues regarding neighborhood communications and citizen involvement in the project. Public engagement on project design included questions about mosquitoes and landscaping. Pursuant to design recommendations from Damon Farber, the Park Board asked for a $200,000 landscaping budget for Cedar Lake, for which the District engineer originally estimated at $17,000. The parties ultimately compromised on a $50,000 landscaping budget. The construction contract for project work was awarded in September 1995 for work at Twin Lakes, Twin Lakes Park, and Cedar Meadows. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in October 1995, along with a Coordinating Board meeting. In late 1996, the Park Board requested that the District submit an application for wetland banking credits under the Wetland Conservation Act for work being done at Cedar Meadows.

Following the project at Cedar Lake, the District and its partners turned attention to planning at project to improve water quality for Lake Bde Mka Ska (then Calhoun). Public concern over the wetlands at Cedar Meadows pond mounted through 1997, and in March of that year the Board held a public hearing on the environment assessment worksheet for the Southwest Calhoun Ponds/subwatershed improvement project, and assessed whether there was a need to prepare an environmental impact statement. In April 1997, the Board voted that no environmental impact statement was required for the project, and moved forward with a minor plan amendment in September.

In 1998, the Board held a public hearing on a minor plan amendment for a Lake Nokomis project, and in 1999 the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board expressed its preliminary approval for the project.

In 1998, the Board authorized a technical evaluation panel to address wetland issues regarding the Chain of Lakes, and continued to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding permitting, the State Historic Preservation Office’s designation of adverse impact on the historical landscape of the area, and a memorandum of understanding with USACE, SHPO and the Park Board, including federal input on historical preservation. In 1998, the District elected to seek a permit from itself for wetland excavation work related to the project. Citizen and community concerns continued to arise regarding dewatering elements of the project and perceived potential for related damage to homes. The Board approved an emergency pumping request from the Park Board for the Chain of Lakes in 1998. Project planning continued through 1999 and beyond.

Long Lake Improvement Project

About the time that BWSR approved the MCWD’s Water Resources Management Plan in May 1993, the District received a Clean Water Partnership grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency of $100,000 for the Long Lake Improvement Project. Throughout 1993, the MCWD worked on outreach to the cities of Long Lake, Medina and Orono, and applied in October 1993 for Phase II of the Clean Water Partnership funding.

The MCWD established a technical advisory committee for the project in January 1994, and Manager Martha Hartfiel (spouse of Long Lake council member and later mayor) reported to the Board of Managers that the three cities were concerned about whether the MCWD was sufficiently committed to the successful completion of this project. She noted that cities wanted assurance of MCWD’s funding commitment, while the Board of Managers noted that the MCWD’s newly approved plan had the project identified as a priority. The Board directed counsel to work on a draft cooperative agreement to reflect these commitments.

MCWD’s work on the project continued earnestly through 1994. The TAC continued to meet, the Board of Managers authorized a feasibility study, and the DNR expressed support of the preliminary design concept for the project. In June 1994, the MCWD engineer presented the project to the city councils of Medina, Orono and Long Lake. By August 1994, the Long Lake city council adopted a resolution of support for the project, while Medina and Orono expressed conceptual approval. The MCWD attorney presented a draft cooperative agreement approved by the Board of Managers for circulation to the three cities. In September 1994, the Board of Managers ordered the Project and adopted a minor plan amendment, and by October 1994, Hennepin County and BWSR had expressed support for the project.

While all appeared generally sound for the Project to proceed, fundamental problems then emerged. First, the MCWD had yet to acquire land rights to construct the Project. William and Barbara Pearce, owners of the County Road 6 pond location, retained legal counsel and an engineer. The Pearces appealed the ordering of the Project and pursued related litigation. The MCWD resolved the litigation with the Pearces by agreeing to downsize the pond on the Pearce property and look upstream in the sub-watershed for additional treatment capacity.

That additional capacity was found in Medina on the property owned by Jack Wahlfors. An initially friendly conversation with the Wahlfors became more adversarial once the Wahlfors retained legal counsel. An extended period of negotiations led the Board of Managers, through several board meetings of consideration to initiate condemnation proceedings by September 1995. The MCWD acquired the necessary easement through ‘Quick Take’ condemnation, but ultimately paid significant sums for the easement and related payments to the Wahlfors for accepting excavation spoils on their property.

The Long Lake City Council, after extensive review of multiple drafts, ultimately signed a cooperative agreement for the Project. The Medina City Council, sympathetic to the interests of their constituent Jack Wahlfors, never agreed to execute the cooperative agreement. Medina objected to contributing to maintenance of the Project, given that Long Lake is not within their city – though the upstream treatment pond was. Similarly, the Orono City Council had similar objections to sharing in maintenance costs, and never signed the cooperative agreement. The Board of Managers contemplated establishing localized sub-watershed assessment districts to pay for project maintenance, but ultimately did not pursue that option.

Groundbreaking for the Long Lake Improvement Project finally occurred in November 1995, and the MCWD implemented an alum treatment of Long Lake in 1996. In later years, monitoring data raised ongoing questions about poor performance of the treatment ponds at the Pearce and Wahlfors sites.

60th and 1st Project

In 1998 the Board of Managers held a public hearing on construction of a regional water quality and stormwater management facility as 60th St. and 1st Ave. So. in Minneapolis. The MCWD adopted a plan amendment for the project and a cooperative agreement with the City of Minneapolis. In 1999, the Board approved the cooperative agreement, along with a plan for the District to design demolition for the project and a wet detention pond, and to take responsibility for site work in coordination with the City of Minneapolis. The City of Minneapolis constructed the project, but did not agree to fulfill facility maintenance obligations, which in turn forfeited the MCWD’s reimbursement to the City for project constructions costs.

Landview Landscaping

Landview Landscaping was a contractor and sole proprietor with chronic performance problems in installing shoreline improvements and rip-rap within the District. Issues with the contractor included slope steepness; mono-, rather than mixed-sized, boulders for stability and erosion prevention; and repeated violations. The District had successfully implemented a licensing program for dredging contractors for several years, and elected to adopt a shoreline contractor license program as a way to ensure that shoreline improvement contractors complied with District adequate shoreline protection and erosion prevention standards.

In May 1993, the District received evidence of multiple violations of its standards by Landview. Following a public hearing concerning Landview’s fitness for a shoreline contractor’s license, at which the DNR went on record affirming Landview’s repeated violations, the Board issued a conditional license to Landview. The District placed the same conditions on Landview’s license for the following two years as well.

Landview appealed these license conditions to the Board of Water and Soil Resources, arguing that the District failed to provide due process and challenging the District’s authority to license contractors. BWSR affirmed the District’s decisions, upholding the District’s authority to license and finding that the conditions the District imposed on the licenses were reasonable and were not in violation of due process. Specifically, BWSR concluded that “MCWD has authority to adopt rules to require permits for shoreline improvements; licensing of shoreline improvement contractors is a reasonable means for MCWD to implement its regulatory program; the conditions imposed on Landview’s 1994 and 1995 Licenses are reasonable; Landview had adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

BWSR also affirmed the District’s rationale for its licensing rule: “The need for the licensing of shoreline improvement contractors will vary from watershed district to watershed district. In the case of Lake Minnetonka, there is a great deal of shoreline improvement activity by means of placement of rip rap. The MCWD has determined that, in light of the amount of this activity and its potential for significant impact upon the watershed, it is necessary to ensure that rip rap and other shoreline improvements are properly constructed in accordance with MCWD rules and permit requirements.”

Landview continued to contest the conditions placed on its license, and appealed BWSR’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where it ultimately found success. In 1997, the court of appeals reversed BWSR and sustained Landview’s challenge, holding that the District lacked express or implied statutory authority to license shoreline improvement contractors. When Landview then sued the MCWD for damages, the court of appeals held that, although the District’s conduct in promulgating shoreline contractor licensing rules was determined to be without statutory authority, the District’s conduct was protected by statutory discretionary and due-care immunity because its actions were consistent with the public purpose underlying its rule and comported with due process.

City of Greenwood

Kee Construction, Inc. (Kee) applied to the District for a dredging permit in connection with the excavation of a navigational channel at the inlet of St. Alban’s Bay on Lake Minnetonka, located in the City of Greenwood. Following hearings on the permit application, the District determined that the project did not have the potential for significant environmental impact and issued the permit. The City of Greenwood sued in district court contesting the MCWD’s issuance of the permit.

The district court held that the permit was valid and granted summary judgment for the MCWD, but imposed its own additional conditions on the permit and the activities authorized under the permit. The district court set compulsory dates for dredging activities, required specific descriptions of work authorized, and stated that any violation by Kee of District rules or of Kee’s permit would result in the District having violated the district court’s order.

The MCWD appealed, arguing that the district court exceeded its scope of review by imposing conditions on the permit and ordering that the District would be held to be in violation of the court’s order if Kee failed to comply with District rules or the permit itself. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, and removed the conditions imposed by the district court. The court of appeals addressed the specific conditions of the permit, holding that decisions by administrative agencies are subject only to limited review. Specifically, courts may only decide whether the agency has authority with respect to a specific matter, whether it acted under the correct theory of applicable law, and whether the facts found by the agency are supported by the evidence. In short, the court could declare the existing permit valid or invalid as issued. The court agreed with the District that detailed decisions about how to reduce the impact on the environment of dredging do not fall within judicial functions. The court held that when courts impose detailed conditions, they improperly substitute their judgment for that of the responsible administrative agency. The court further agreed that the district court had exceeded its authority when it ordered that the District would be held in contempt if Kee violated the terms of its permit. Since Kee had not begun work, much less violated the terms of the permit, such a question was purely speculative.

Ewing Wetland

In July 1994, the developer Halley Custom Homes proposed a multi-lot subdivision home construction project near Ewing Avenue in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park in an area abutting a wetland. Citizen opposition to the project included prominent environmental and conservation activists, voicing concerns about groundwater impacts, including the groundwater connection to Cedar Lake. (Many of these same conservation activists would appear later before the MCWD concerning Camp Coldwater Springs as noted below.) The District tabled the project proposal several times for further analysis. The District engineer confirmed the wetland delineation for the project, and that the project had no impact on the wetland, and a hydrogeologist from Wenck confirmed that there were no groundwater impacts from the project. The District’s permit decision was appealed to BWSR, an appeal that was ultimately abandoned, and later mooted by construction of the project.

MnDOT Permitting

In 1994, the District learned that MnDOT was pursuing its work at the Highway 62/35W interchange without an MCWD permit. In September 1994, the District received notice of a blanket MnDOT policy change: MnDOT would no longer seek watershed district permits for highway projects. A June 1995 environmental impact statement letter from US DOT also reported MnDOT’s position that it need not apply for watershed district permits. Near the Highway 62/35W interchange, residents of Grass Lake expressed concern about the impact of the MnDOT project to the lake, and the District formed a Grass Lake Citizens Advisory Committee to monitor this issue and develop a management plan for Grass Lake.

The Board of Managers adopted a motion that any MnDOT project proceeding without a permit would be considered a violation and brought this issue to the 1995 annual conference of the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts (MAWD). MAWD adopted a strong resolution advocating that MnDOT projects should be subject to watershed district permitting, and in 1996, the Legislature added a specific provision to the Watershed law making it explicit that MnDOT must obtain watershed district permits for its projects.

In early 1999, MnDOT sought a stormwater management permit for reconstruction work along Highway 55 in Minneapolis. The Board of Managers developed concerns that the construction involved deep disturbance of bedrock and could potentially impact seeps and springs in the area. The Board ultimately approved the project permit with conditions, and directed a hydrogeological study of the construction area. MnDOT challenged these permit conditions in district court, and the litigation continued beyond 1999.

Hennepin County Study of Water Management

In December 1994, the District learned of a Hennepin County legislative initiative to abolish watershed organizations and turn water resource management over to county government. The District promoted a resolution, adopted at the MAWD annual conference, affirming watershed districts as cost effective and environmentally sound managers of water resources. Hennepin County staff prepared a report on the alternatives to watershed district management. At a study session briefing on the Long Lake Improvement Project, MCWD managers learned that the apparent root of the County’s concern came from Commissioner Mike Opat, who have been frustrated with the lack of progress toward addressing water quality issues in his district. After a productive discussion with MCWD managers, Commissioner Opat withdrew his earlier interest in broad reform and invited collaboration to address local water issues in his district.

Metropolitan Airport Commission

In 1996, the Metropolitan Airport Commission applied for wetland alteration permits to expand the Minneapolis International Airport. The Board approved MAC’s permit application in 1997, and in 1998 approved a variance from Rule B because stormwater runoff from the project would discharge outside of the District, into another watershed (the Mississippi River).

Rule Amendments

The latter half of the 1990s saw various amendments to the District’s rules. In 1996, the Board amended its rules to include buffer zones around wetlands. That same year, the Board proposed revisions to Rule B, stormwater management, and Rule D, wetland protection. In 1998, the Board voted to revise the District’s treatment of multi-unit residential development in its rules and to amend Rule B, stormwater management, and Rule N, erosion control, pursuant to that aim.

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