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Compromise sought for Glacial Lakes State Trail route

NEW LONDON--A compromise might be in the works between the New London-Spicer School District and the state Department of Natural Resources on a proposal to bring a segment of the Glacial Lakes State Trail through school property.

The New London-Spicer School Board has told the state that the Glacial Lakes State Trail cannot be placed in or alongside outdoor classrooms on school property, like this area near the middle school. The school route was a vital link in the plan to bring the trail from New London to Sibley State Park. Alternative routes through NLS property are being considered.Carolyn Lange / Tribune
The New London-Spicer School Board has told the state that the Glacial Lakes State Trail cannot be placed in or alongside outdoor classrooms on school property, like this area near the middle school. The school route was a vital link in the plan to bring the trail from New London to Sibley State Park. Alternative routes through NLS property are being considered. Carolyn Lange / Tribune

NEW LONDON-A compromise might be in the works between the New London-Spicer School District and the state Department of Natural Resources on a proposal to bring a segment of the Glacial Lakes State Trail through school property.

During a meeting Tuesday morning, all sides agreed to study a new proposed route and meet again later this fall to compare notes.

That action could help preserve the project to extend the recreational trail from New London to Sibley State Park.

"I'm grateful NLS is willing to move forward with new ideas," said Rep. Dave Baker, who met with school, DNR, county and city officials from New London and Spicer and encouraged another meeting to keep the talks going.

Concern about student safety and preserving the district's prized outdoor classrooms could still make the NLS School Board balk.

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Board member David Kilpatrick said after the meeting he's "pro-trail" but is still "skeptical" about developing a workable plan through school property.

The trail spur from New London to Sibley State Park has been in the works for years.

Plans were accelerated after NLS signed a cooperative agreement in January of 2015 that said a portion of the trail could go through school property, said Kent Skaar, senior project manager with the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails.

Since then, Skaar said private land has been acquired at a cost of about $300,000 and $2.5 million in state money is earmarked for the trail in the bonding bill that was stalled in the legislative session.

But the project was dealt a surprising blow when the NLS School Board voted last month to rescind that cooperative agreement.

The board did not like the proposed routes, including one that would put the trail through the school's nature areas, arboretum and outdoor classrooms that are used daily by students and teachers.

Another route would cross a very busy school entrance and put the trail alongside athletic fields and playgrounds that could cause problems for future building expansions.

While the cooperative agreement gave NLS veto power on the route, Skaar said there was no provision that allowed the district to rescind the entire agreement.

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Because the expenditure of state funds is involved, "there isn't the opportunity for the local unit of government that signed on to step away," he said, adding that the DNR would not force the district to allow the trail to go through school grounds.

But he said the implication of the rescinded agreement could be "significant" in St. Paul.

"There's been a lot of work, a lot of money spent based on a plan we started 10 years ago and we've had a lot of buy-in," said Greg Soupir, district supervisor for the DNR Park and Trails Division.

Soupir said area landowners agreed to sell land for the trail, in part, because of the school connection. "It's really difficult to back out of that. We're too far down the road," he said.

Board Chairman Robert Moller said the board was never told the fate of the trail hinged on the district's involvement-or lack of involvement-and had understood the DNR had another route on Kandiyohi County Road 40 as an alternative.

Skaar said the school property is a crucial link in the plan to get bikers and hikers from the existing trail along state Highway 23 to a tunnel that would go under Kandiyohi County Road 9 near the elementary school.

The trail would then extend west to another tunnel under U.S. Highway 71 and County Road 40 that's scheduled for construction in 2017.

The preferred DNR route would take the trail through the nature areas and outdoor classrooms on the southern edge of the school district property.

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Moller said that area is "off limits" and reiterated the board's concern for student safety and support for maintaining the integrity of the outdoor classrooms.

Having a public recreation trail in that area would be just as disruptive to student education as having bikes and horses go through the middle of an indoor classroom, Moller said.

The group, however, agreed to study a last-minute suggestion to bring the trail through the center of the school campus on an existing road the board is considering expanding into a bus route between the elementary school and high school.

If the road is dedicated only for bus traffic-and not for shared public transportation use-Skaar said state funds could be used to develop a trail alongside it.

Moller said having a trail through the school campus would be a benefit to students and the community and the district will continue to work with the DNR to explore that plan.

Skaar said if it's impossible to get a trail through the school grounds, the DNR could still build the trail spur from County Road 9 westward. That would leave it up to the local community to figure out if a connecting route is wanted between the existing trail and the new spur-and how to pay for it.

Related Topics: TRAILS
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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