East Cannon River Trail is in (all) the Plans

The East Cannon River Trail is the only issue on the Northfield City Council’s special meeting agenda (although there are multiple actions to be taken) tomorrow, Tuesday, April 26 2016 (here’s the packet). While there are multiple pieces in the project puzzle, approving the trail should be easy – no-brainer easy – because building this trail segment is so richly supported by prior planning going back more than a decade. This piece of trail specifically or more general guidance for improving access to the Cannon River and increasing recreational opportunities along it is contained in all Northfield’s major planning documents. The Council can take a big step toward implementing the City’s policy vision by approving this trail.

The Trail Itself

Right now, there is a section of paved trail beginning at the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge extending south toward Dundas, but the trail stops behind the commercial development. There have been wetland issues (and the Army Corps of Engineers) to manage (and wetland credits are also on the agenda tomorrow) as well as inter-jurisdictional negotiation (Dundas, DNR). Now, however, the Northfield city staff have lined up all the ducks for the Council to approve, culminating in approving a resolution accepting bids and awarding the contract for the East Cannon River Trail Project.

Map of Northfield East Cannon River Trail route
East Cannon River Trail Route

This piece of trail is important for Northfield and Dundas because it helps achieve a long-term vision to capitalize on the Cannon River as a distinctive natural, economic and recreational resource, provides an off-road link (along the busy and otherwise difficult to walk or ride Highway 3) to a charter school, commercial areas, and three parks (including Sechler Park which is being developed by CROCT as an offroad bike facility), forms another link to the Mill Towns Trail under development, and can be another small part of making Northfield good to walk, great to retire, and highly livable. No wonder it is included in all these city plans:

General plans

Comprehensive Plan: The Comp Plan highlights the importance of the Cannon River and applauds efforts “to better integrate the river into the community; its scenic beauty and recreational possibilities afford the possibility for further integration of the river into the community. The Greater Northfield Area Greenway System Action Plan is an important resource in helping with this integration.” Land Use, Community Identify and Economic Develop objectives all identify the Cannon River as critical and expanding access to the river, linking to downtown, and connecting parks, places and people.

The Economic Development Plan makes activating and leveraging the Cannon River one of three key findings for economic success; Northfield’s rich sense of place is considered critical. And, the Transportation Plan contains objectives to trail connectivity between areas of the City including current bike and pedestrian route deficiencies (current as of 2008) such as the east side trail dead ending, lack of trail integration into overall design, and challenges linking downtown with the trail system.

East Cannon River Trail specifically

Greenway Corridor Plan: Generally, this plan recommended trails should be considered on both sides of the Cannon River as well as some creeks to link neighborhoods to the river. The East River Corridor (east side of the Cannon River from Highway #3 bridge south to Dundas) was identified as the first priority “because it forms the backbone of the system, due to the potential for development, and because creation of this link will help to create strong support for the system.”

Northfield Greenway Corridors system map
Greenway Corridor System Plan

Park, Open Space, and Trail System Plan: The plan identifies this trail connection as a Destination Trail (which neighborhood trails and linking trails connect to the rest of Northfield). Individual park plans for Babcock, Riverside Lions Park, and Compostella Park also note development of an east river trail should be integrated into master planning for these currently underutilized parks.

Parks, Open Space, and Trail System Plan
Parks, Open Space, and Trail System Plan

Gateway Corridor Improvement Plan: This plan to improve gateways into Northfield incorporated the Greenway Corridor and other plans to highlight trail connections and other green infrastructure.

Costs and benefits

Almost half of the approximately $1 million trail construction cost (with bids substantially less than engineering estimates) is from grants with the remainder coming from the general fund (about $200,000), TIF funding (about $175,000), and the City of Dundas (about $93,000).  I’m not a big fan of grants, believing too often grants are sought to fund projects the City would not otherwise undertake. In this case, however, the plan to build the trail is well established and grant funding has been awarded to complete this well-documented, long-planned project. The City will need to build maintenance of the trail into the budget and CIP in coming years, but the costs relative to the wide benefits of this long-planned trail segment appear very reasonable.

The question of trail surface material must also be answered. In this area prone to flooding, the choice of a paved rather than crushed rock surface would provide a high-quality surface for more users with better durability. The plans for this trail emphasize its importance for access and connectivity; building for residents with limited mobility, children, skateboards, walkers, runners, and people on bikes; choosing the bituminous option provides bigger benefits to more people. I hope the Council will take action to carry out so many of Northfield’s plans by approving this trail project.

Connecting the trail for a bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier) Northfield
Connecting the trail for a bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier) Northfield


Northfield’s greenbelt

New urban cow

“How to protect America’s countryside from sprawl” got my attention because of the word countryside – a very British term – and because it’s not the rural side of the boundary which gets the attention, usually, but the development pattern inside cities.  Still, the “how” in the article is really just a list:

There are strategies available for helping to maintain and strengthen rural landscapes and working lands, and slowing the loss of farms and farmers, forest and other resource lands…these can include “use value” taxation, purchase/transfer of development rights, assisting local farms with agricultural economic development such as direct farm-to-market programs, urban purchasing agreements, ecosystem services markets, right-to-farm laws and, crucially, extra low density zoning.  Promoting conservation easements can also be important.  Newly emerging strategies such as putting rural land to 21st-century nonpolluting uses with wind farms and biomass generation may also be promising in some areas.

To help with thinking about how we protect the countryside, we need to be able to express the value of open space, green infrastructure, agricultural land, and natural resources in economic terms and in measurable improvements to air quality, water quality, and, of course, quality of life.

Part of this, of course, is anticipating objections from the folks who don’t want to be told what to do with their private property.   If land was like an apartment building, where each parcel was completely separate from its neighbor with wall-like barriers at the property lines ensuring nothing would drift across into the neighboring property, then I’d agree.  I’d completely agree if each parcel was completely self-sufficient.  As it is, private property shares (and pays for) public resources like streets and pipes, as well as natural resources light, air, water, trees, etc.  Because we do share resources and share the financial burden  for them, I’d say we have to balance private property/public good to make our community as economically sustainable as possible.

Which is where I get back to the smart growth idea of knowing the value of open space to help create some additional incentive to increase density and put more taxpayers per acre (or foot of pipe) so we each pay less.  And I get back to England, too.

England, a country with many people but not much land – the UK is a bit smaller than Oregon but Oregon has about 3.8 million people and the UK has over 60 million – created greenbelts around major metropolitan areas in the 1950s (London’s greenbelt dates to the 1930s) to “stop urban sprawl and the merging of settlements, preserve the character of historic towns and encourage development to locate within existing built up areas.”  Now, facing a housing shortage (of millions of homes), England has been revisiting its greenbelt planning policy which has the potential to dramatically reshape the countryside.  I’m waiting to see what happens.

For Northfield, I think about the four townships surrounding the city as our de facto greenbelt, at least for now.  Waterford and Bridgewater townships have been clear about maintaining their rural character and perhaps we could help them do it because it would make good sense for the city, too.  As in Kaid Benfield‘s piece, the “how we do it” part is still undeveloped, so to speak.

Blog vs. slog – or, how to think about the new Land Development regulations

I have the 275 page draft of the new Land Development Regulations on my desk and I’ve been thinking about how best to read this tome, how (as the Planning Commission liaison) to provide some concise policy guidance to the Council, how to ensure the regulations really do further the goals of the Comprehensive Plan, and how to write about the regulations here.

Unfortunately, this is a crucially important issue which does not lend itself well to little bloggy bites, but requires rather slow slogging through the big issues and the small details.

My plan for my own review looks something like this:

  1. Identify new policy issues Council must consider (there are regulations for small wind turnbines in residential neighborhoods, and significant changes to the development review policy, for example).
  2. Compare key provisions to Comprehensive Plan goals and objectives
  3. Read for consistency and clarity
  4. Check development review process for simplicity and predictability.

Slow and steady – I’d love to have this ordinance in place with hare-like speed, but slower more careful work is needed.