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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Sterling Street Q&A

Last week a journalism student e-mailed me with questions about the council's decision about Sterling Street, for an article she was writing for class. Following are her questions and my answers.

Q: How long have you held your position as a Council Person?

A: I was elected last fall, and sworn into office this past January.

Q: What is the rationale behind closing Sterling Street?

A: Sterling was under consideration as a street project this year. Residents along the road petitioned the council to ask that it be closed from Ripley to Larpenteur. The feasibility study prepared for the city considered closure of the road as one option as part of the road project. Staff ultimately had a neutral recommendation on whether to close or reconstruct it. The feasibility study said, "The low traffic volume and alternate access on the north end via Mary Joe Lane does not indicate a need of a through connection of this street for traffic flow purposes."

I did vote to close the road. Factors that were important to me were that the secluded stretch of road was an invitation for illicit activities (teen alcohol consumption, illegal dumping, etc.), and the section of road across the wetland area could not be properly engineered in terms of soil corrections. Thus it is not only expensive to reconstruct the street, but the soils would have limited the lifespan of the road, meaning a higher future cost as well for maintenance and replacement. Closing the road in my view was an opportunity to save taxpayer dollars and reduce a law enforcement and environmental nuisance.

Besides the taxpayers of the city at large (who pay most road reconstruction costs), consider too the property owners along the now-closed road section, who would have been assessed tens of thousands of dollars for the rebuilding of a road they do not use, in order to allow another neighborhood to keep a shortcut into North Saint Paul. If those property owners successfully challenged their assessments, arguing that their properties did not benefit from the improvement, it would have meant even more expense for the taxpayers.

Q: Even with a petition why were residents unable to gain a public hearing?

A: It's important to understand that a public hearing is a formal step in the process of a public works project. If the council intended to re-open the street, we would have been required by law to call a public hearing. I believe a public hearing would simply have repeated the arguments we heard during the discussion of the petition, and those arguments did not change the mind of the council.

State law has a lot of specifics governing street improvements. One aspect of the law is that to order an improvement, there has to be a supermajority of at least 4/5 of the city council (see Minnesota Statute 429.031 Subd. 1 (f)). At the February 25, 2008, council meeting, we had voted unanimously to close the street. After hearing the petition and extensive public comment at our September 22nd meeting (more than 3/4 of it asking that we not reopen the street), only one member of the council expressed an interest in calling a public hearing, and it was not clear that she actually would vote to reopen the street -- just that she was willing to continue the discussion.

When someone complains that residents did not get a public hearing, they may give the impression that they were refused the chance to present their views to the council. In fact the petition was on our agenda for 9/22. We received and considered the petition at that meeting, and took public comment from everyone who came forward to offer it that night. But since our minds were not changed, there was no point in repeating the exercise under the formality of a public hearing under M.S.429.

Q: Were the concerned residents notified ahead of time about the meeting that would discuss the official closing of Sterling Street?

A: I believe that the answer is "no," if by "concerned" you mean the residents who oppose the street closure. But this is because the residents opposing the street closure live in a different neighborhood than the one where the street project was occurring.

Residents in the immediate area of the improvements and closure were notified by all the usual means -- letters, neighborhood public meetings, etc. It was as a result of those notifications, of course, that they knew about the project and petitioned to ask that the road be closed. And public hearings, such as the one on Feb. 25th before our decision to close the street, have to be publicized as required by statute (two notices published in the newspaper). In addition, notice of the meetings and all of the related materials, including discussion of possible closure, were available to the public in advance of the meeting on the city's website.

Q: Is there evidence to back the claims of gun shots, dumping, and drug dealing along the street?

A: There seems to be widespread agreement that there is dumping. Even people who want the street reopened agreed that this was so, but they downplayed its scale or significance. There also seems to be agreement that it is a bit of a party spot; at our Feb. 25th meeting, the police chief stated that the police do see the evidence of it afterwards, even if they are not called out to respond to it when it's happening. Neighbors who live in the immediate area reported the gun shots and drug dealing. Some people who live in other neighborhoods, and want the street reopened, voiced skepticism about these claims, but it's not clear to how they would be in a better position to know what might go on there in the early hours of the morning, compared to people who actually live right by the area at issue.

Q: What is your opinion, should the street be closed or open?

A: I stand by the decision to close it.

Here are some links you may find useful:

2/25/08 meeting minutes (decision to close Sterling)
9/22/08 meeting minutes (receiving and discussion of petition to reopen)
Maplewood Review article

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