Houston, Minn., faces pressure in exiting off-highway vehicle park plan
Feb. 18—HOUSTON, Minn. — After 14 years, plans for an off-highway vehicle trail and park in Houston, Minn., appear to be nearing the end of the road.
A mayor and city council majority elected in 2022 amid backlash to the proposed park are looking for a path out of the project.
However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and area off-highway and four-wheel drive clubs say halting the project will be costly for the Southeast Minnesota city of about 1,000 people.
Under options DNR officials have given city leaders, if the city does not proceed with a motorized vehicle park on the bluff abutting Houston to the south, the city would be on the hook for paying back state and federal grant money totaling about $465,000.
The entire tax levy for the city is about $500,000 per year.
"I don't accept that our only choices are to accept the project or bankrupt the city," said Cody Mathers, Houston City Council member.
On Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, area motorized recreational vehicle groups sent an email to the DNR commissioner and the Houston City Council promising to "spare no effort to fight the city's plan to exit the project without consequences."
City leaders say they aren't backing off on backing out.
"I'm confident we'll come up with something acceptable to all parties involved," said Scott Wallace, Houston's mayor.
Joe Unger, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources trails division off-highway vehicle planner, presented city leaders and and Houston's legislative representatives Sen. Jeremy Miller and Rep. Gregory Davids six options for the city in a meeting early February. The options range from proceeding with building the park, which would cost the city another estimated $50,000 to $200,000 for federal review of the site, to the city owing the DNR $465,000 for grant repayment.
However, Unger added it doesn't close the door on other choices.
"If the city came to us with a different option, we would explore that," Unger said.
Proponents for exiting the project point to the DNR's failure to follow Federal Highway Administration's procedures on early land acquisition and concerns about the park site from other staff within the DNR could bolster Houston's case to withdraw from the project.
Wallace's involvement began after he purchased property that abuts the planned entrance to the park. In 2021, he said his initial reaction was support for the park until he learned the park would be
designed for full-size passenger vehicles to pass each other
In 2009, the city agreed to work with the DNR to acquire land on and along bluffs on the city's south side adjacent to South Park in Houston. The park would feature 7.5 miles of trails for full-size jeeps and for all-terrain vehicles.
Publicly, the DNR continues to advocate for the park in the bluffland. However, internal emails show deep concerns about two habitats within the park, rare species that inhabit the dry prairies atop the bluffs and the oak savannas that the hills contain.
About 56% of the park area includes those two habitats.
Following visits to the site in October 2010, multiple DNR naturalists and specialists expressed concern about placement of the park and the proposed trails.
Shawn Fritcher, a DNR parks resource specialist, noted in an email following the site visit the bluffs are likely to contain dens of timber rattlesnakes, which is a state threatened species. Fritcher also noted the areas also contain multiple species of rare plants including amethyst shooting star and ginseng.
Fritcher followed that up with comments in 2019 that portions of the trail placement "maximize impacts" to wildlife.
"The trail segment I mentioned in the attached document really seems to be high impact," Fritcher wrote. "I do not see how this segment could be built in a sustainable manner."
Mitigating erosion was another concern. Plans for maintaining the park call for a grant-in-aid program that allocates state funding toward maintenance to be done by city staff and clubs that use the parks.
In an email in 2010, Jaime Edwards, Whitewater Wildlife Management Area wildlife supervisor, wrote she didn't believe the terrain was conducive to the type of land use being proposed.
Edwards noted the efforts multiple agencies had been making to reduce erosion and sediment going into the nearby Root River. The project, she wrote, "will significantly contribute to a problem we are spending a lot of time and money to resolve."
A grant-in-aid maintenance plan wouldn't offer enough resources and expertise to mitigate the erosion, Edwards wrote.
Allowing the plan to go forward would hurt the DNR's credibility in encouraging other landowners to practice erosion mitigation efforts, Edwards added.
Those internal concerns and assessments weren't made public. However, in 2021 Houston residents began raising their own concerns about noise, erosion and delicate ecosystems. That rising awareness of the project culminated in vocal public opposition to the plan.
Dave Olson, who was in his third term as mayor of Houston, and Unger told people who had concerns the plan was already in the final phases.
Both said at the time the project had advanced enough that stopping it was unlikely.
However, the city council formed an exit committee advisory group to explore the consequences of ending the process to establish the park.
Mathers was selected to serve on the exit committee. He has since been working with other volunteers including Karla Bloem, director of the International Owl Center.
In November 2022, Wallace defeated Olson carrying more than 60% of the vote to become the city's new mayor. The only incumbent city council member supporting the project also lost his seat.
"We're a pretty small town, we don't have many salient issues," Mathers said. "It was a referendum on the project."
For supporters of the project, the cost of exiting the project is a lost opportunity to build a public motorized recreation park in an area of the state that has none.
"The closest one is 286 miles away," said Mike Bromberg, a Rochester resident and secretary of the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association.
The year Bromberg was born, his parents bought a Jeep. At 8 months old, he rode in that Jeep on a trip to drive through the wilderness in Calgary, Alberta.
"It's in my blood," he said.
The park would serve as a day destination for ATVs, 4-wheel drive vehicles and full-size vehicles.
Bromberg's preferred trip is to take multiple days and cover miles of ground.
For him, seeing wilderness through a windshield means seeing more of it.
"It's fun to get outside and see miles and miles of nature instead of walking two miles," Bromberg said. "I like to cover a lot of ground and see other things."
Bromberg said his preferred trip is through the Ozark Mountains. Getting there is only about two hours further than he would have to go to visit a park in northern Minnesota.
Nonetheless, a nearby park would be a nice amenity, he added.
"It'd be fun to take my wife and kids and go down to Houston for a weekend or day trip," he said.
In 2011, the DNR used Federal Highway Administration Trails Grant Program funding to purchase 70 acres for the park adjacent to park and bluffland already owned by the city of Houston.
The deed to the land stipulates
if the property is sold, leased or transferred, the ownership of the land reverts to the state of Minnesota.
However, all of the options the DNR gives Houston include repayment of the grants for all property acquisition.
"That would take away our only asset we could use to pay back the grant," Mathers said.
December 2022 review by the Minnesota branch of the Federal Highway Administration of the DNR's acquisition of the land
found the state did not complete all the required environmental study of the land to qualify for early acquisition of the land. The same report found that "no adverse impacts resulted from the acquisition because no construction has occurred."
"This was all just done out of order 10 years ago," Mathers said. "We're being held accountable for their misstep."