Hwy. 55 opponents seek new environmental studies
November 30, 1998

Hwy. 55 opponents seek new environmental studies

Steve Brandt / Star Tribune

Those opposed to rerouting Hwy. 55 near Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis are opening a second legal front against the controversial road project.

They said Monday that they have asked state and federal highway officials to conduct new environmental studies to consider material they have unearthed about the potential impacts of the new route. If they don't get a favorable response in two weeks, reroute opponents said they will consider suing to stop the project.

An environmental impact statement approved in 1985 for the project is "completely inadequate," said David Shamla, an attorney representing two environmental groups and one American Indian group.

Meanwhile, road opponents who are camped out at vacated homes on the route of the planned road said they think the state plans to clear them out next week, and the opponents are wondering what stance Gov.-elect Jesse Ventura will take on the Hwy. 55 issue.

Contracts for the project are scheduled to be awarded next spring.

The opponents say that previous studies didn't adequately consider the project's impact on historic sites associated with pioneer-era Camp Coldwater and on the flow of its spring, on the oak savanna and wildlife nearby, and on Indian claims that the area has spiritual significance.

The project is under legal attack from the Park and River Alliance, the first group to oppose the reroute. In federal court, the alliance lost an argument that the original environmental studies were flawed because they didn't adequately consider alternatives to using parkland for the road project.

U.S. District Judge Donald Alsop ruled against the alliance, saying that such an action was limited by a six-year federal statute of limitations for challenges to the 1985 studies. That ruling is being appealed.

But Alsop also said in his ruling that the 1985 study didn't cover the project's impact on Fort Snelling State Park or the Coldwater historic area. The latest request for more environmental studies argues that enough new information has surfaced about that area between E. 54th St. and Crosstown Hwy. 62 that more study is warranted. It asks for a supplemental environmental impact statement, which may be sought when new information relevant to environmental concerns surfaces that would result in a significant impact not considered in earlier studies.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation was quick to dismiss the claims that new information has surfaced.

"Simply because a group comes in at some point and makes a claim that can't be substantiated, doesn't require new environmental work. These are not new claims," said Robert McFarlin, the department's spokesman.

If the department holds to this position, groups initiating the latest request would have to sue to press their claims. A decision on such a lawsuit could hinge on whether a judge sees it as an attempt to consider new information or an attempt to discredit the previous environmental studies after the time limit has expired.

Opponents: End is near

Road opponents at an encampment in the path of the planned reroute said that the state is preparing to send National Guard units to clear them out next week. Opponents have occupied a half-dozen homes for months on Riverview Road, where the state acquired property for the project.

McFarlin said at some point the protesters will have to be removed if they don't leave voluntarily, which they've said they won't do. "How that may take place or when that may take place, I'm not at liberty to say," he said.

The last resident of the state-purchased homes is due to depart next week. In what it describes as an effort to maintain public safety, the state has tried to cut off utilities promptly when homes are vacated. In October, it used 60 law enforcement officers to cut off water and gas to two homes after protesters stymied an earlier effort.

Protesters said in November that the state would move them out just after election day, but that didn't happen.

Ventura's position on the Hwy. 55 issue remained unknown Monday. Opponents have thought he might side with them since he gave an ambiguous answer about his transportation policy during a campaign forum.

Ventura grew up in the Minnehaha Park area and won his first elected office as Brooklyn Park mayor after he was aroused by a wetland development issue. He met with state transportation officials Monday as part of his effort to educate himself about state agencies, and they discussed the Hwy. 55 issue.

The department and road opponents are giving Ventura their arguments about the planned routing of the road. But Ventura said Monday that he has no position on the issue.

"They can protest to me all they want. I have no weight until January 4," he said.

Staff writer Robert Whereatt contributed to this report. Copyright 1998 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.