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Lake City council split over continuing Hwy. 61 project

August 18, 2018

LAKE CITY — On a 4-2 vote, the Lake City City Council on Thursday approved a preliminary layout for the U.S. Highway 61 reconstruction and lane realignment.

That approval also directed the city and engineers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to include planning for up to $1.339 million of amenities including lighting and landscaping along U.S. Highway 61 and the riverwalk area through Lake City.

“Once again, shame on you if this passes,” said Council Member Cindy McGrath, referring to the expenditure for the amenities, which would be added onto the roughly $1.8 million the city is spending on the highway project. “You’ve deceived the citizens of Lake City.”

McGrath’s complaints about the amenities again brought up opposition to the highway project, both from her and Council Member Mary Lou Waltman. Both council members have long opposed the deal.

Waltman, who opposes the change through downtown from four lanes to three lanes — a lane in each direction plus a left-hand turn lane in the middle — said voting on the preliminary highway plans and the amenities would be pointless, as she believes a new city council seated after the November elections would reverse the decision on the project before work starts.

“I think the public spoke at election time,” she said, referring to the primary election held Monday. “I think you’re going to see a dramatic change at election time. I think you’re going to see those four lanes stay. I’d just as soon wait until January to vote on this.”

Now or never?

Mayor Mark Nichols said reversing course when nearly half the planning work has already been done, and so many hours have been spent by MnDOT on the project would be a huge mistake.

“If we tell them to take a hike, for 20 years this city will not be on any funding lists,” Nichols said.

Nichols added that the project comes with an 80-20 cost-share between MnDOT and the city. Nearly $8.7 million of the project would be paid for by a mix of federal and state transportation funds.

“I’d take that deal every day of the week,” Nichols said.

As for the amenities, which would help beautify the city along U.S. Highway 61 and along the river area, Nichols and three other council members called it an investment in the city.

City Administrator Rob Keehn said while the initial pricetag for the the amenities is $1.339 million, that amount could either be scaled back or spread out over several years. The important part, he said, would be getting the lighting infrastructure — mainly conduit for electric lines that would run the length of the project — in place so future work could be done.

McGrath complained that the city council had no idea where the money for the amenities was coming from, and the whole project was being sprung on residents without warning.

Nichols responded: “We’ve been working on this now for five or six years. Here we are in the final stretch, and we have council members who don’t understand the financing.”

Council Member Russell Boe said, “We had a public forum two months ago.”

Nichols added that while in Monday’s primary race there were candidates who did not support the chance to three lanes who were the top vote-getters, overall 65 percent of votes cast were for candidates who favored the project as it is currently planned.

Beach project

In other business, the council heard an update from Keehn about the Ohuta Park/Marina Beach project.

Keehn said the city has conducted a land survey to see where the nine trailers at the marina can be moved out on the point. The hope, he said, would be to move those trailers in the area where the tennis courts currently reside.

He also said the plan to demolish the bathhouse on the marina point has been put on hold until after Labor Day.

The council also approved a new ordinance for short-term rentals. All rentals would need to be registered with the city.

Megan Smith, with the city’s administration, said the ordinance would cover rentals of residences for 30 days or less. Residences outside the downtown business district would be required to provide two off-street parking spaces, and ones downtown just one.

“This is an opportunity to make sure these properties are being managed in a safe, respectable way,” Smith said.

Finally, the city congratulated former Harbor Master Mark Lutjen, who recently retired after 27 years on the job. The council approved the hiring of new Marina Administrator Jeff Brand.

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