When Kim and Mark Wright moved onto a lot 6 miles west of Perham, they made sure to nestle their house around old growth trees that would act as a buffer from passing traffic on neighboring County Highway 34.

Kim describes their pie-shaped lot as an oasis. From a picnic bench in their front yard they have views of four different lakes.

“We’ve always thought, you don’t pay (for) lakeshore property and you’re right by the access, what better spot could you have?” Kim said.

Now that oasis is threatened by the proposed Highway 34 reconstruction and Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail project.

The regional trail is a 10-foot wide, 32-mile long path that will bridge Perham and Pelican Rapids through Maplewood State Park. The project is broken up into four segments: West, Silent Lake, McDonald and East. Further in the future, the trail will be linked to the Heartland Trail and the Central Lakes Trail.

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When the new right-of-way was staked out earlier this summer, the Wrights were not happy with what they saw. Nearly the entire treeline would be wiped out, exposing their house to traffic speeding down the highway.

The Wrights and other property owners are fighting the loss of trees, yards and farmland as the $14 million Perham to Pelican Rapids trail gets closer to breaking ground in the spring of 2020.

The county’s perspective

The Focus met with Otter Tail County commissioners Doug Huebsch and Betty Murphy, Otter Tail County Public Works Director Rick West and Otter Tail County Communications Director Nick Leonard at the Nest Coffee Shop in Perham on Tuesday, July 30.

During this visit, county officials explained the origins, funding and eventual benefits of the Perham to Pelican Rapids trail project.

The trail planning process dates back to 2012 when Otter Tail County officials assembled a countywide economic development committee with representatives from each district to brainstorm ways to improve the county.

Huebsch said this process exposed a need to have more recreation options throughout the county.

West said trails had been discussed for years, but there was never any planning behind it.

In 2014, a steering committee made up of representatives from local, regional and state agencies began gathering over a period of months, and numerous public meetings to complete a trail master plan. The result of this plan dictated the route, forecasted demand and elements of the trail.

Frustrations mounting

Further down the road from the Wrights, Dolores and Donald Bernauer’s house sits on a large swath of commercial property they’ve owned since 1973.

Before retiring, Dolores ran an upholstery shop from a building in the lot’s northwest corner, and now Donald stores about 100 boats on the yard during the winter.

With a tight curve being straightened out on Highway 34 around Little McDonald and Paul lakes, the Bernauers are set to lose eight-tenths of an acre, according to a property assessment completed by Otter Tail County.

“We’re going to lose a lot of nice lawn,” Dolores said, pointing at the wooden stakes designating the new right-of-way in their front yard. “Most people don’t even have that big a yard.”

On top of the yard, the new right-of-way comes less than 10 yards from the upholstery shop building.

“It will destroy the shop,” Donald said. “They’re going to give us three grand to ruin it.”

The Bernauers and Wrights say they are frustrated with the lack of communication from the county. Donald and Dolores didn’t realize the project was coming into their yard until it was being staked out in June.

Kim Wright says she had no idea about the project until a neighbor asked her about it earlier this year.

“We didn’t think it was no thing,” she said.

Even then, the first map they saw highlighted only a sliver of trees that would be cut on the corner of their property -- much less than what’s staked out now.

Donald and Dolores Bernauer stand next to a stake marking the construction and right of way easement for County Highway 34. All of the trees to their left are going to be cut down. (Carter Jones/FOCUS)
Donald and Dolores Bernauer stand next to a stake marking the construction and right of way easement for County Highway 34. All of the trees to their left are going to be cut down. (Carter Jones/FOCUS)(Carter Jones/FOCUS)

Steven Lomsdal, who lives across highway 34 from the Wrights, said the project is forcing him to give up his drainfield, which would jeopardize the compliance of his well.

“They should have looked at each piece of property before they started taking,” Lomsdal said. "I don’t want to pollute the lake."

Lomsdal is concerned that if he were to ever sell his house, potential buyers would favor a well that was in compliance over his.

Mark Wright laments what he calls a bully attitude coming from the county.

Donald Bernauer expressed a similar sentiment, saying there’s nothing an individual can do when the county is determined to complete the project.

“I feel sorry for Mark Wright, it will ruin his place,” Bernauer said. “He’s going to have 50-mile-an-hour traffic buzzing right by his door. They’re going to shoot snow right up to his door with the plow.”

Dolores Bernauer said there had to be a much better choice then coming through the narrowest section of lakes.

While their concerns may be valid, county officials say everyone had a chance to provide input on the trail’s route.

West said the public planning process drove the route there.

When the Perham to Pelican Rapids Trail Master Plan was being devised, the county held more than a dozen public meetings.

“Just like a lot of our public meetings, 20 people showed up,” West, the public works director, said. “We provide some opportunity for folks to express their concerns; at those meetings it was overall positive.”

“Staff didn’t just sit in our cubicles and say ‘this is where it should go,’” Leonard said.

Paying for it

Vocal opponents to the trail say taxpayer money would be better spent on fixing the county roadways, but county officials say they’re only using money specifically allocated for trail building, mainly those from the Legacy Amendment.

The Legacy Amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1% and is divided up to sponsor clean water, outdoor heritage, arts and culture and parks and trails.

Commissioner Huebsch said Otter Tail County contributes more than $3 million annually to the funds total of $330 million.

“If we’re not getting that much back, we’re not getting our fair share of the million,” Huebsch said. “That’s why there’s trails all over the (Twin) Cities, because they’ve been good at getting that money back, and we have not.”

Leonard said if the county doesn’t apply for those legacy funds, county taxpayers are just paying for trails elsewhere in the state.

“Either we invest in it in our local infrastructure and amenities for our residents and go after these grants and support them, or we keep paying for these nice amenities in other places,” Leonard said.

County officials point to the Glendalough Trail in Battle Lake as an example of how a trail can boost the nearby economy.

Battle Lake Mayor Gene Kelm said the trail has been wonderful for that city.

Since the trail’s completion in 2014, 24 new businesses have opened in Battle Lake, according to Huebsch. The trail has also helped to invigorate Glendalough State Park.

Prior to the trail, Glendalough was averaging 50,000 visitors a year, now that number has jumped to 80,000 annual visitors, according to Park Manager Jeff Wiersma.

“The trail definitely increased visitors,” Wiersma said. “It’s a huge asset to the park and community.”

These positive economic benefits are not news to Leonard. The Otter Tail County communications director says the research is clear: Home values go up the closer the property is to a trail.

A National Association of Homebuilders study found that trails are the second most important community amenity that potential homeowners cite when choosing a new community. Trail availability outranked 16 other options including security, ball fields, golf courses, parks and access to business centers.

A report by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center found between 1996 and 2008, average spending rates for trail users who traveled at least 30 miles from their home to a trail in Minnesota was between $27 and $39 per day.

The Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail Master Plan uses this figure to estimate the trail could generate between $1.62 million to $3.51 million annually.

Leonard says trails are vital to bringing workers back to the county, as current projections estimate the county facing a shortage of at least 3000 workers in the next 10 years.

“These are the types of things that when we’re trying to recruit people to our area, to live and take jobs, amenities like parks and trails are high, high, high on their list,” Leonard said.

The Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail will run alongside this narrow section of Highway 34, requiring acres of fill. "We've already infringed on mother nature, this is a scenic byway for a reason," said Kim Wright, a nearby resident. (Carter Jones/FOCUS)
The Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail will run alongside this narrow section of Highway 34, requiring acres of fill. "We've already infringed on mother nature, this is a scenic byway for a reason," said Kim Wright, a nearby resident. (Carter Jones/FOCUS)(Carter Jones/FOCUS)

‘We have to predict the future’

Otter Tail County Public Works Director Rick West said a major rebuild of Highway 34 won’t happen for 75 years, so this is a once in a generation chance to do this project.

Whether or not a trail is being built, the county would be buying wider easements, according to Huebsch.

“We gotta plan for the future, we don’t know how big these combines are going to be,” he said.

The Wrights and other property owners along the trail’s path say they have nothing against biking, but don’t understand why the highway shoulder can’t just be widened, with cyclists riding with traffic.

“I’m not against the idea of it,” Kim said. “I try to be logical and leave my emotions out of it; why can’t we have it with big shoulders?”

Leonard said to get maximum use and therefore maximum economic development out of a trail, it needs to be off-road and non-shoulder.

“Everyone will ride on one of those,” he said, “I’ll ride on one of those and I can hardly ride a bike. You’re not going to find me riding down 59 or 78.”

West said it becomes a safety issue at the end of the day.

“Traffic is way too fast and there’s way too many inattentive drivers,” he said.

Commissioner Betty Murphy said families with little kids aren’t going to be on 34, but will head out on the trail.

DOWNLOAD AND READ: Perham to Pelican presentation, June 13, 2019

The parties meet

At the last trail update meeting, on June 13, about 100 people packed into folding chairs in the Dent Community Center to publicly address county officials. Dolores Bernauer and Kim Wright both took to the microphone to address the lack of communication from the county.

Joel Gorentz, a dairy farmer, said he’s barely getting by, and probably won’t be in business in another five years because of how much land the county is taking away.

Weeks later, Huebsch said it’s tough to be at those meetings, and stand in front of his friends and neighbors.

“You also have to look at the common good of everybody,” he said. “You try to represent everybody.”

Huebsch said it would be more of a disservice to county residents if there were no trails at all.

“My goal is to get as much back here as I possibly can, because that’s going to build the economy,” he said. “Whether it’s for housing, day care, hospitals. If we’re not actively working hard to keep this stuff, it’s going to be gone.”

Otter Tail County Engineer Chuck Grotte said at the June 13 meeting that the county is trying to make fair and reasonable offers to all property owners.

“We need everyone on board, we can’t do it without them,” Grotte said.

The county is buying easements through Storm Right of Way Solutions. Once an offer has been made, a property owner has the option to do their own property assessment.

If the county and property owners can’t agree on an offer by then, the county has the right to use eminent domain.

Mark Wright said he doesn’t understand how a bike trail could use eminent domain.

West said eminent domain is an option, as long as the road or trail project shows a public purpose.

West said in the 29-plus years he’s worked for Otter Tail County, eminent domain has only needed to be used twice.

“We go there because it causes everybody to get together and talk,” West said.

58 different property parcels are involved and split up between 40 property owners. The county is about 25% done with buying easements, according to West.

The county’s goal is to complete the easement buying process by January 2020, then submit bids and break ground right away in the spring, according to West.

Noon Aug. 8: Chat live with Focus staff about this story

Walking forward

Kim Wright said the county offer they received was a “real sad amount of money.”

Donald Bernauer said they’re not in it to get rich, but there’s no amount of money that will replace mature trees that he’ll lose.

Bernauer shook his head walking past trees that will be cut down in a matter of months.

“One minute you’re angry, one minute you’re depressed, the next minute you don’t know what to do,” he said.

Huebsch acknowledges it’s a tough process and he feels bad for property owners who will be affected, but said they’re going to be treated fairly.

“Not everybody golfs, but we provide golf courses. Not everyone flies, but we provide airports,” he said. “We really support snowmobile trails, way more people have bikes than snowmobiles, but we support them still as a society. You gotta give people a variety of ways to recreate. Not everyone is into the same thing. This is very important to a lot of people.”

Contact reporter Carter Jones at 218-844-1491 or email cjones@perhamfocus.com.



TRAIL FACTS

  • The Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail will be 27 miles long, and will bridge Perham to Pelican Rapids, anchored in the middle by Maplewood State Park.
  • The trail is broken up into four segments: East, McDonald Lake, Silent Lake and West.
  1. The East segment is 6.5 miles long and runs alongside County Highway 34 from Perham to County Highway 35.
  2. The McDonald Lake segment is 6 miles long and runs from County Highway 35 and 440th Street to county highways 34 and 41.
  3. The Silent Lake segment is 8 miles long and goes from 440th Street and County Highway 41, Maplewood State Park.
  4. After exiting Maplewood State Park, the West segment of the trail is 8 miles long, running from County Highway 3 and US Highway 59 to Pelican Rapids.
  • The total cost of the project is estimated at $14 million.
  • Once completed, annual maintenance will be $29,898.

TOWNSHIP MEETING

Dora Township is holding its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, in the Vergas fire hall.