Drive past the pavilions and landscaping at Harriet Island, and you'll find a woodsy oasis that most Twin Cities residents have never discovered.
Lilydale Park is home to bike and walking paths, a 450-million-year-old fossil bed and a lake but little else. It doesn't even have a restroom. The park is named for the town that once stood here until floodwaters forced everyone out more than 40 years ago.
"We kind of refer to it as Harriet Island's wild sister. And we like it that way," said Jon Kerr, a St. Paul resident of nearly 20 years and member of Friends of Lilydale Park.
The park, located along the Mississippi River southwest of Harriet Island in St. Paul, will get a makeover starting in the spring. The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department is using Legacy Amendment money to prepare to build a new road and picnic shelter in the park.
The planned changes have pitted Kerr's group against city officials; the two sides disagree over just how much development is needed to make the park more accessible, allowing people from across the region to enjoy it. It's a question that will undoubtedly continue to be raised as state and local officials spend Legacy money to improve parks and trails.
So far, the Lilydale debate stands out among Legacy-funded parks projects in the metro area. Plans for the park were temporarily put on hold earlier this year to complete an environmental assessment after citizens raised concerns. The process generated more than two dozen pages of public comments and responses before the city concluded the changes would not cause significant environmental effects. Most other parks projects haven't received that level of citizen scrutiny.
"When change is done, it's difficult for a lot of people to accept," said Peggy Lynch, executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County. Lynch, who has been involved with the group since the mid-'80s, said she doesn't recall a more contentious park project.
Like Kerr, Lynch was hoping to keep the park undeveloped, but at this point she said it's time to move forward with caution. She hopes parks officials take time to evaluate how each step of the process affects the park.
"It's an absolutely wonderful park loved by so many people, and I just hope that when all the development is done we'll all still feel the same way," she said.
OPPORTUNITY FOR HIDDEN 'GEM'
School groups already use Lilydale for lessons about fossils, taking students on field trips to hunt for brachiopods and trilobites left when Minnesota was covered in saltwater. But there's no gathering place for classes, and the lack of restrooms also limits access, said Jody Martinez, who oversees parks projects for St. Paul.
The plans for Lilydale will help more people discover the park, which could be a getaway for city residents who don't have a summer cabin, she said.
"It's just such a gem. It's 400 acres right in the heart of our city. It's basically sat there for 40 years," Martinez said. "To us it's just a perfect opportunity."
Since voters approved the Legacy Amendment in 2008, state and local parks officials have been carrying out five main goals with the sales tax money: connecting people to the outdoors, acquiring land, creating opportunities, taking care of what we have, and working better together.
For parks in the metro area, two of those goals have received the bulk of the funding: taking care of what we have and creating opportunities. In 2010 and 2011, more than $23 million went toward projects meeting those two goals, and another $12 million was set aside for 2012.
St. Paul officials have spent about $2.3 million in Legacy money so far on Lilydale project, mostly on cleanup, Martinez said. Before Lilydale was a park, it was a town complete with houses, a brick factory and a dump. The area is still contaminated.
Another $1.5 million in Legacy money will now pay for preparation work for the new road and picnic shelter, with construction starting in the spring. The new road would replace the current road, which some motorists use as a shortcut to Highway 13.
Although the development fits under one of the strategic goals outlined for the amendment, Kerr said it's not what he had in mind. He had hoped problems with runoff and erosion, as well as a disconnected part of the trail would be prioritized.
"The way I've thought about the Legacy fund money is that it's supposed to improve and enhance the real environmental features that we have," he said. "There are other great parks they can have picnic pavilions on and parking lots. Why does Lilydale have to look like all the other standard parks?"
Building the road and picnic shelter will require trees to be removed. In addition, crews will have to build up a mound for the shelter to be constructed on because of floodplain restrictions. On the other hand, the mound has to be capped anyway because the soil below contains asbestos, and many of the plants and trees at Lilydale are invasive species. Part of the plan calls for restoring native plants and trees at Lilydale.
Martinez said there's no estimate yet on how much it will cost to build the picnic shelter. The overall plan for Lilydale will cost an estimated $15 million, and parks officials hope it will be complete within 10 years. The city will seek additional Legacy money to finish the project.
Those who have been involved in the planning and design process for the Lilydale project said Legacy funding is a perfect fit.
"This park holds a ton of promise but it's a long way from being there," said Bob Spaulding, river planner for Friends of the Mississippi River who co-chaired a community task force charged with refining plans for Lilydale.
Giving more people a chance to discover Lilydale will give the park hope for the future, he said.
"Once you get people in the park and once they recognize the assets that are in the park and could be in the park, they will deepen their commitment to helping restore the park. And we've seen that in other parts of the Mississippi River corridor," Spaulding said.
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