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Duluth Planning Commission OKs Park Point plan

Despite vigorous and numerous objections raised by a crowd assembled at the Duluth City Hall on Wednesday night, members of the city’s planning commission voted to recommend a plan that could guide future development on Park Point.

By a 5-3 margin, the body chose to support a course of action a year and a half in the making.

Most of the controversy swirled around two issues: redirecting the flow of traffic down the point and creating clear public access points to the waterfront.

S-curve debate City staff recommend that as traffic levels build in the face of anticipated development, Duluth should look to reroute traffic on the point. Vehicles that travel down South Lake Avenue after crossing the Aerial Lift Bridge onto the point likely would one day be diverted via an S-curve at Eighth Street South onto Minnesota Avenue, running along the bayside. This would allow the S-curve at 12th Street South to be eliminated and would shift traffic away from a residential neighborhood into Park Point’s emerging commercial district.  

Initial plans to have traffic moving at 30 mph would have necessitated the removal of up to six homes, but a revised design that would slow vehicles to a maximum 20 mph could reduce that loss to just two homes.

Duluth Senior Planner John Judd said that the improvements would be made only if warranted. If traffic levels are deemed acceptable, he said the traffic pattern could be left as is, with signs directing motorists to the commercial district on Minnesota Avenue only as an option.

Gerald Hadland, a Park Point resident, said his own property would not be affected but he feels for those who could be displaced.

“If they approve this plan, it’s like placing a black cloud or an anvil over the heads of those property owners,” he said, warning that the adoption of a plan could make it difficult for affected homeowners to sell or refinance, even if the S-curve never comes to fruition.

“If you want to have a plan, keep it in a back room,” Hadland said.

While the planning commission recommended the adoption of the Park Point plan Wednesday, the Duluth City Council ultimately will decide whether to endorse or reject it.

Councilor Joel Sipress was in the audience and spoke in support of the plan: “The S-curve is simply there as a way to plan for a projected problem,” he said. “If the problem doesn’t come to be, it won’t happen.”

If the city doesn’t plan for how to address increased traffic on the point, Sipress said he considers it likely that the same issue could be up for lengthy debate again in a few years. He praised city staff for planning ahead and working to channel and contain future commercial development to a limited stretch of bayfront property on the point.

Waterfront access The plan also proposes to designate eight secondary access spots on the bayfront and lakeside shores of the point.

Efforts would be made to promote the beaches at Franklin Park, Lafayette Square and Minnesota Point as the primary areas for public use.

But the city also would identify other less prominent access points, so that no one on the peninsula would have to walk more than a couple of blocks to get to the beach.

Right now, the city has the right to a public easement at the end of each street that dead-ends at the waterfront, including some access rights at the ends of streets that were platted but never built. The plan calls for the city to relinquish some of these easements and retain others, clearly marking them to eliminate future confusion and conflicts between property owners and beach-goers.

One of those secondary access points runs by property owned by Roy Marlow who contended the city was making an unfair and arbitrary decision as to which homeowners would benefit.

“They’d basically be donating public property to some people and screwing others,” he said.

Marlow pleaded with the planning commission for the right to buy the easement that runs across his property from the city.

Yet, other groups faulted the plan for reducing public access. Rich Staffon, president of the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, filed a written objection: “Platted streets should be free and open to the public for travel and passage on walkways or pathways regardless of whether or not they are improved further,” he wrote. “These street ends have been always open by tradition and should so remain open for all to use.”

Planning Commissioner Drew Digby said the plan strikes a good balance and should bring clarity to a thorny problem.

“I’ve sat through probably 15 hearings on Park Point issues, and the No. 1 problem I’ve heard about has been people walking through people’s yards to access the beach,” he said.

The vote Supporters of the Park Point plan included Timothy Meyer, Garner Moffat, Drew Digby, Luke Sydow and Terry Guggenbuehl.

Voting against the plan were Marc Beeman, David Sarvela and Zandra Zwiebel.