Wildlife advocates concerned over planned construction in Roberts Bird Sanctuary

The following article by Ben Johnson was published in the February 13, 2014 issue of the Southwest Journal:

Wildlife advocates concerned over planned construction in Roberts Bird Sanctuary


A shelter at the Roberts Bird Sanctuary
Photo Courtesy of the MPRB

Birdwatchers are not happy with a plan to rehabilitate a 100-year-old sewer line that runs through the Roberts Bird Sanctuary.

The Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary (FRBS), an organization created to “protect, preserve and enhance” the 31-acre wildlife refuge just north of Lake Harriet, say several concerns raised during the project’s public engagement process have been ignored, and that they’ve been kept in the dark while the project’s plans were finalized by the Met Council and Park Board.

The concerns were outlined in a letter released by FRBS on Feb. 3: http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/mpls/messages/topic/7xKfZSh2TP497GOMnmFttr and co-signed by Audubon Minnesota, East Harriet-Farmstead Neighborhood Association and Linden Hills Neighborhood Council.

Cliff Swenson, director of design and project management for the Park Board, says the activists’ opposition stems from simple misunderstandings and that the Park Board has done everything it can to minimize the project’s construction impacts. He also said “there’s never an excuse for a lack of communication with the public” and he has directed staff to create a project page and email list that will be frequently updated throughout construction.

One of the primary concerns FRBS has is that construction is scheduled to begin in September, when many birds rely on the sanctuary as a stopover to rest during the fall migration.

“When the meetings were held last year [Met Council and the Park Board] said they were going to do everything they could to avoid the spring and fall migrations,” said Matt Johnson, president of FRBS. Construction is scheduled to finish in December, and reforestation of the affected areas will occur the following spring.

Swenson says he relied on the opinion of Larry Gillette, an independent wildlife biologist: http://www.startribune.com/local/west/119974684.html the Met Council hired to consult on the project, to develop a construction timeframe.

“[Gillette] told us from September through the winter season the impact to migrating birds would be at its lowest. We took that information and made sure the Met Council put that into the construction documents,” said Swenson, who also noted that shifting the construction timeframe away from the fall could affect birds’ nesting and breeding seasons.

Another major concern FRBS raised is that the Park Board has granted Met Council (and ultimately the contractor Met Council hired for the project) a construction easement that ranges up to 50 feet wide in some spots. That surprised and upset Johnson, who was told that the construction impact would only be 10–15 feet wide during the community engagement process.

Swenson says the easement is a maximum only intended to be fully used in the event of a catastrophic incident, and he anticipates an 8- to 10-foot construction impact.

“Even though in some places there is a 50-foot temporary easement, the contractor has to just get enough room to get their vehicles in safely and be able to maneuver around each manhole.

It’s extra money for that contractor to come in and clear that whole zone, so they’re going to minimize that whole impact to save money,” he said.

The Met Council owns the 3.5-mile section of sanitary sewer being rehabilitated and will pay for all construction costs and reforestation. The project starts near France Avenue in the west, cuts between Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, edges around Lakewood Cemetery and ends on 36th Street on the east side of Lake Calhoun.

At this point it is unclear whether the bird sanctuary will be closed during the construction.