Spring 2010 trail target

By Jason Schoonover, Albert Lea Tribune

Spring of 2010 is the earliest possible date construction could begin on an extension of the Blazing Star Trail from Myre-Big Island State Park to Hayward.

“I don’t think the trail development has moved along as rapidly we hoped that it would, but there’s still an excellent possibility that this trail can get built, and it’s because of the support of the community,” said Joel Wagar, area supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources.

The Freeborn County Trail Association held a meeting to update Freeborn County residents on the progress of the planned bridge to cross Albert Lea Lake and the portion of trail to then stretch to Hayward. DNR representatives urged the 37 people in attendance to push the need for this trail by contacting local legislators and the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota, a group that advocates to the Legislature. Wagar said it’s a good nonprofit to have on your side because of its legislative clout.

Wagar said there are many cities and groups competing for funds for similar trails.

“None of these efforts are going to go anywhere without local initiative,” Wagar said. “The ones that are going places are the ones that have local folks that are really pushing and driving like you’re doing now.”

If the project receives new money from the 2010 bonding bill, the money could be used over four years. Kent Skaar, DNR acquisition and development sector leader, said people should begin looking to the next step for the trail after it reaches Hayward.

But before the project can expand the trail past Hayward, the trail needs to reach Hayward. Skaar said attaining this goal is essentially two projects: one to cross Albert Lea Lake and a second to bring the trail to Hayward.

Before Dec. 31, 2010, there needs to be a contract in place with a construction company or an extension with the Legislature or the $1.5 million in funds from the 2005 bonding bill will be lost.

The bridge crossing Albert Lea Lake will be a pile-driven bridge that will be high enough out of the water to not be damaged by floods or ice, Wagar said. A portion of the bridge will be raised to allow boat to pass.

The bridge will be about 900 feet long and cost an estimated $800,000, Skaar said.

If there was not enough money to complete both projects, it’s likely one part of the project will be completed or there could be a delay.

The cost to purchase the land will play a big part in the overall budget for the project, Wagar said. Preliminary estimates are slightly higher than the money available at this point, but grant money could make that up, he said.

Landowners have all been contacted via letters, and all of them have agreed to hear offers, Wagar said.

One issue is also the level of competition for the grants. Wagar said he unsuccessfully applied for grants the last two years.

“At this point, the funding still seems reasonable,” Skaar said.

An appraiser has been hired and will begin contacting landowners about potential land deals within a few weeks, he said. Applications for landowners will be due in about a month. It’s likely offers could be turned in to the Lands & Minerals Division of the DNR by the end of July.

If for some reason the DNR cannot come to an agreement with the landowners, Skaar said different landowners could be contacted. Landowners only sell if they choose: “It’s purchasing from a willing seller, period,” Skaar said.

Landowners likely will receive a per-acre rate, and Skaar said each deal could be different based on the type of land. The appraisals are due in late July, and the land agreements could be completed in August.

Some people who attended the meeting were skeptical about the progression of the process. The city of Hayward built a public bathroom about three years ago. One resident described the process of contacting landowners as starting over.

“We heard this same speech two years ago,” one Hayward resident said after the meeting.

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One thing that delayed the process was a switch in where the trail will be. Originally, the plan was for the trail to approach Hayward on the north side of the railroad tracks that run from Albert Lea Lake east through Hayward.

Currently, the plan is for the trail to be north of the railroad tracks by Albert Lea Lake, but the trail will cross back south of the railroad tracks as it approaches Hayward, because Wagar said landowners to the south have showed more interest.

Another thing that has slowed the process is the recent sale of a substation by the route from Alliant Energy to ITC Midwest, said Steve Hennessy, acquisition and development specialist with the DNR. Alliant had made a commitment. Now ITC’s lawyer has been reviewing a possible land agreement. Hennessy said Alliant Energy still owns some land there, and he described this process as going from one landowner to two.

The process of designing the trail will begin after the option-to-buy agreements for the land are completed, and Wagar said that could be by the end of the summer. It’s likely a consulting engineering firm would be brought in to design the crossing of the lake.

Best-case scenario, Wagar said, the design for the trail could be completed over the winter, a contractor could be hired in late winter and construction could begin in spring or summer of 2010.

“We will push this project along as quickly as we can,” Skaar said. “Again, the acquisition component has certainly taken longer than any one of us would like to have seen.”

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