Legal edge stressed in vote to stop Highway 55 re-route

Rob Kuznia

When Dean Zimmermann stood on the edge of a picnic table at Minnehaha Park to speak to about 60 people Sunday afternoon, somebody behind him told him to be careful. He responded with a pun.
“That’s OK, I’m always on the edge. I’m used to it.”
If Zimmermann, a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioner, has his way today, the pressure to stop the re-route of Highway 55 could come from the park board instead of protesters.
Zimmermann is one of three at-large elected park board members — Rochelle Berry Graves and Annie Young are the others — who announced that today they will vote against swapping land with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to facilitate the Highway 55 re-route.
To prevent the land transfer, the nine-member board needs at least four votes, he said. Zimmermann asked picnic attendees — mostly re-route opponents — to do what they can to persuade one more member to vote against the proposal.
Zimmermann named several “fence riding” candidates. Among them was Commissioner Vivian Mason, who said she is not sure how she will vote today.
“I’m trying to weigh it all out,” she said. “But I think the conservationists should realize that we have a closer philosophical agreement with them than any other agencies do.”
Laura Silver, a protester who will study biology at the University next fall, said it was vital that the conservationists show their support for the board.
“Right now, the board members don’t want to transfer the land,” Silver said. “But they feel that because of the legal technicalities, they have no choice, and that isn’t true. We need people to attend the meeting to show the commissioners that we support their beliefs.”
Commissioners worry that if the board votes against the transfer, MnDOT will sue them for a breach of agreement, Zimmermann said.
Since the early 1980s, the park board and MnDOT brokered several agreements in which the board approved the construction of a corridor through Minnehaha Park.
But Zimmermann said the board members should be aware that legal troubles will also ensue if they approve the transfer and the land is subsequently proven to have historic significance.
An archaeological firm continues to test for historical significance in the area. Bob McFarlin, director of public affairs for MnDOT, said the report indicating whether the corridor has sacred value should be completed within the next couple of weeks.
If the land is proven to have historical significance, construction on the Hiawatha corridor would break federal law.
“But that doesn’t mean that preparations like the land swap with the park board should stop,” McFarlin said.
However, McFarlin said park board resistance is not a concern to MnDOT officials.
“This project has been approved by both the park board and MnDOT at a number of different stages along the way,” he said. “Proposals like this don’t get this far unless both jurisdictions are cooperative.”
McFarlin said he didn’t want to speculate on what might happen if the park board prohibits the land swap.
“We expect the park board to approve it on Wednesday,” he said.
Today’s vote will take place at the Grain Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis. At Sunday’s picnic, Commissioner Young urged the protesters to attend.
“It’s time to stop the traffic. Make it really difficult for those other commissioners to get into the building, and make a gold path for Commissioner Zimmermann and myself,” she said.
Zimmermann urged the protesters not to espouse environmental rhetoric in their efforts to persuade the other commissioners to vote against the swap on Wednesday.
“It is a waste of time to talk to these commissioners about, ‘Oh, the poor oak trees’ and ‘Oh, the poor Indians,’ and all of that. The vast majority of people in this world are sympathetic for their cause. But (the commissioners) feel they are legally obligated to go with this action, so the arguments must be legally based.”