Ham Lake WMA battle pits houses vs. habitat

Staff Writer

Ham Lake, Minn. Matt Norton has watched with alarm as protected
areas like wildlife management areas have come under increasing
pressure from development.

A project abutting the southwest side of the 23,000-acre Carlos
Avery WMA in Anoka County has Norton, staff attorney for the
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, particularly
concerned.

The Wildwood Preserve housing project is an example of the DNR,
environmental groups and a developer agreeing how to develop
without disturbing too much habitat, said Hannah Dunevitz, a DNR
ecologist.

But the city of Ham Lake had so far refused to sign onto the
plan, which would require a variance from the city’s 1-acre lot
minimum. It confirmed that decision at a meeting Monday night.

“It’s for consistency of what we are doing today,” city council
member Jacob Barthold said. “(Allowing a variance) opens the
floodgates in the future for some other developer to come
along.”

Carlos Avery contains a dry-oak forest that is rare in Anoka
County. It is also home to a wetland and a variety of game animals,
including turkeys and deer. Additionally, 15 birds of conservation
concern are in the area, Dunevitz said.

“Ideally, we would make a compact development and protect as
much of the high-quality habitat as possible,”she said. “There is a
rare expansive oak forest there, and that and the wetland are
continuous into Carlos Avery WMA.”

Last fall, the MCEA began working with the developer, Tollefson
Development Inc. of Lakeville, to find a development plan that
would appease all sides.

At that time, the developer had a plan calling for 124 homes.
The second version had 180 homes. The third version of the project,
which the MCEA supports, would develop more than half of the
dry-oak forest and have 126 homes in half-acre lots.

The MCEA commissioned an ecological study of the area, completed
by Applied Ecological Services, to determine where development
could proceed. The study identified a preferred buffer zone between
Carlos Avery and the development.

Tollefson Development agreed to work within the context of the
buffer, but hasn’t been able to comply with Ham Lake’s insistence
on the 1-acre lot size.

Environmentalists have clung to the recommended buffer zone,
which includes part of the dry-oak forest, and won’t accept a plan
that impedes it, Norton said.

Said Barthold: “The environmentalists don’t want to move. They
dig in their heels. They have an imaginary line drawn; they aren’t
moving from it.”

A fourth version, drawn solely by the developer, maintains the
one-acre lot size and calls for 114 homes. All plans maintain open
space within the 360-acre site. The MCEA can’t support that
proposal, Norton said, because it would develop 37 acres the
environmental group wants preserved.

“We have to base our decision on science and science tells us
they are going past an acceptable compromise on version 4,” Norton
said.

Cedar resident Dave Overland, a Minnesota Outdoor Heritage
Alliance board member who attended Monday’s meeting out of personal
interest, has followed the development’s progress and believes it
would “destroy the reason I moved here 27 years ago.”

“I’m ashamed to say I’ve lived, hunted and fished within a few
miles of Ham Lake City Hall,” he said. “The loon picture on their
letterhead should be changed to a bulldozer.”

The MCEA last fall served the city of Ham Lake with a complaint
alleging violations of the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act
because the development was approved without requiring an
Environmental Impact Statement.

Though the city reaffirmed that it would stick with its 1-acre
lot minimum, MCEA will continue to work for compromise. But Norton
said MCEA will do what’s necessary to protect the WMA.

“If we are pushed to the limit the choice is filing a lawsuit in
court,” he said.

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