HJ/EDHerald Journal, Dec. 26, 2005

Developing Dakota Rail line trail will be long process

By Dave Cox
Staff Writer

Groups with conflicting interests are looking at potential development of the former Dakota Rail line through McLeod County, but no decision on how the property will be used is likely anytime soon, according to McLeod County Commissioner Sheldon Nies.

Some of the groups concerned would like to see a trail developed for walking, biking, snowmobiling, and ATV use.

The property is currently owned by the McLeod County Rail Authority.

Nies explained that he is in the process of negotiating with the DNR about the possibility of the DNR leasing the portion of the line in McLeod County.

If the DNR does agree to lease the line, it will then have to develop a land-use plan for the property.

“It will be a long process. I expect it to take at least a year,” Nies said.

The process would include public meetings in all of the communities affected by the project, and the DNR would ask for input from residents and special interest groups who wish to comment on the issue, Nies explained.

The line cannot be sold, because the right-of-way needs to be preserved for possible future uses, Nies said. He added that the state also has a lien against the property, which prohibits sale.

Nies pointed out that no county money has been spent on this issue, and, if the DNR does lease the property, no county money will be spent on developing the trail.

Trail development can be a very complex issue.

Nies commented that he has a copy of the DNR master plan for the Casey Jones state trail, and the document is over 100 pages long.

The Dakota Rail line has been handled differently in different counties.

Nies said that Hennepin County turned over management of the portion of the trail in that county to the Three Rivers Park District, and Carver County is preparing its own plan.

The Three Rivers Park District prepared a draft master plan for the Dakota Regional Trail project in Hennepin County.

The document was available for municipal and public comment from Oct. 6 to Nov. 30.

The Three Rivers Park District Board is in the process of reviewing the final master plan, and the final plan will be sent to the Metropolitan Council for review and approval in February.

Once the final plan is approved, the project will enter the functional and construction design phase.

The design phase will address infrastructure, parking, and grade crossing issues. Aesthetic issues, such as privacy concerns for local residents and integration with local community plans, will also be addressed.

Hutchinson is among the cities that is interested in the development of the Dakota Rail corridor in McLeod County.

“The focus, so far, has been to preserve the corridor and the structures,” Hutchinson Director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Education Dolf Moon said.

Moon agreed that development of the corridor will be a long-term process, and said that any plan for the corridor will require approval by three taxing authorities; McLeod County, Carver County, and the Three Rivers Park Commission.

Municipalities that abut the property are also likely to have some input.

“How do you meet the needs of a diverse group of people in a 54-foot right-of-way with about 10 feet of usable space?” Moon commented.

“We are concerned with all users, including those with disabilities, who may want an outdoor experience,” Moon stated.

Regarding the surface of a possible future trail, Moon said his personal preference would be a bituminous surface, which he said would attract more bike users.

He said that, in his opinion, a more likely choice will be some type of limestone material, which is packable and maintainable, and could support many users.

In Hutchinson, the line dead-ends at the old railroad depot.

Moon hopes that the depot could be restored and used as a trail head information center.

The depot could also be used to preserve railroad history, and could include displays and railroad equipment, Moon said.

Moon’s vision for the property would give it a parklike, rather than an industrial, appearance.

The future of the Dakota Rail corridor could potentially include linking a trail on this property to other trails, including the Luce Line. This could form one or more loops, and create a regional trail system that would span multiple counties.

A time frame for any action on how the portion of the corridor in McLeod County will be used will depend on how negotiations progress with the DNR.

Director Laurie Martinson of the DNR Trails and Waterways Division confirmed that the DNR has had conversations with the rail authority, and has let the rail authority know that the DNR would be willing to help out with recreational uses for the corridor, but said that it is up to the rail authority to decide what it wants to do.

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