By KATIE NELSON / FORUM NEWS SERVICE
PUBLISHED: September 28, 2016 at 9:56 am | UPDATED: September 28, 2016 at 10:01 am
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BNSF Railway plans to build on 300 acres it owns in St. Paul Park, constructing a 100-acre parking lot for storing new automobiles that already is frustrating neighbors and local leaders.
“The bulk of the footprint of this facility will be for parking new automobiles that are brought in by trains,” said Amy McBeth, BNSF regional public affairs director. “They will be parked in the facility for two to three days before moving out of the facility.”
The land that was annexed from Grey Cloud Island Township to St. Paul Park more than a decade ago.
St. Paul Park city officials had wanted to see residential development on the land, but when property owner Gordon Nesvig sold it to BNSF Railway last year for $9.8 million, hopes for new housing faded.
Grey Cloud Island Township had fought against a housing development and now has concerns about the railroad company’s plan.
The company plans to relocate the parking lot facility in St. Paul to the St. Paul Park site in order to allow room for growth. BNSF is set to begin work on the site early next year.
“From our perspective, we’d like to begin construction,” McBeth said. “We’d like to begin building in spring and hope to be operating in the fall.”
Though the land is zoned residential, City Administrator Kevin Walsh said that railroad companies “do not have to comply to local zoning authority.”
“We’ve lost 300 acres of developable land through no choice of our own,” Mayor Keith Franke said. “This is another situation where I’m not sure how we address all these issues, so we need to see some sort of ultimate positive off the start of this. I don’t see us having much control or options.”
The railway would also pay only minimal property taxes, which are paid first to the state and then disbursed to cities. St. Paul Park would be the only city receiving that revenue.
Grey Cloud officials are also worried about a drop in property taxes as a result of decreased property values after BNSF builds on its lot, as well as there being “no benefit” to anyone in the township, according to Paul Schoenecker, Grey Cloud supervisor.
“The change in rural living — it now becomes industrial living, rather than rural living,” he said. “The township suffers; those people suffer. For us, that’s huge. That’s life-changing.”
“We get hurt more than anybody,” town board chair Richard Adams added.
McBeth said BNSF is interested in talking about the project, and has been having or organizing conversations with officials from the school district, Grey Cloud, Newport, Cottage Grove and MnDOT. The company is also scheduling several open houses to talk with the public.
Open houses are planned for Oct. 18 and Nov. 15, and a project update at the Nov. 7 St. Paul Park council meeting is possible.
St. Paul Park council members raised concern about increased truck traffic.
“You’re going to make this incredibly hard to make this happen with traffic,” council member Tim Jones said. “Unless you work with MnDOT to redesign this, you’re gonna have some serious challenges. The volume we’re experiencing now is right on the edge of being manageable. This truck traffic is going to tip it over the edge.”
The amount of truck traffic coming from the site when it opens is estimated to be 65 loaded trucks and another 65 unloaded trucks per day, McBeth said.
McBeth said BNSF is willing to use alternate routes if the city requests it.
The preliminary plan parking lot area will only use about 100 acres in the south end of the lot to start — an area that can hold up to 6,000 automobiles — but plans are for the operation to grow. The other approximately 200 acres will be leased out for farmland for the time being, and McBeth said conversations with the city will continue.
“But at this point, there’s no plan to develop that further,” she said.
Preliminary schematics for the yard include a fenced-in facility with a gated entrance. McBeth said BNSF has suggested putting up a berm or perimeter, as well as planting trees or shrubs, “for the community to see some more landscaped areas rather than the fence.”
The gate is also planned to be far enough into the facility so that there would be no stacking from the trucks trying to enter.
There is a similar, though smaller, property owned by Canadian Pacific Railway in Cottage Grove. The one being built by BNSF Railway is near city limits.
“Are we really happy about it? No,” Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said. “Part of the concern is that our vision — just like (St. Paul Park’s) — was housing, so their view will be a rail yard.”