Duluth City Council approves paddle park

A controversial plan to develop a new park catering to non-motorized watercraft below Spirit Mountain on the banks of the St. Louis River moved ahead Monday night, when the Duluth City Council approved it by a 7-2 margin.

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A controversial plan to develop a new park catering to non-motorized watercraft below Spirit Mountain on the banks of the St. Louis River moved ahead Monday night, when the Duluth City Council approved it by a 7-2 margin.

In so doing, councilors acted against the recommendation of the city's parks and recreation commission, which voted against the plan 6-4 on Feb. 13.

As proposed, the park would feature a universally accessible canoe and kayak launch, making it easier for paddlers of all abilities, including those with disabilities, to get on the water.

"The proposed lower Spirit Mountain access point to me is a first," said Eric Larson of Courage Kenny, a local organization that works to engage disabled people in outdoor activities. He characterized the launch, sheltered by Tallas Island, as an ideal location for beginners to learn in a safe environment.

"In my 24 years, I've yet to see any concerted effort on behalf of the city, parks department and the state DNR to provide such a universally accessible water access, and I commend the work that's gone into it from the city staff standpoint," Larson said.


But Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said surrounding terrain in the area, combined with clay soils, could lead to any development there impairing water quality.

He suggested the city's plans for the project were being driven by a desire to fund the construction of a new road that would also serve a prospective housing development in the area, dubbed Kayak Bay.

"We believe there are other viable and less-costly options that need to be considered. All we are asking is that the council put the brakes on this project, which is being driven by a single interest and not by the community as a whole. Let's start with a clean slate, gather all the stakeholders around the table at the same time and work together to find a consensus around a plan that meets all the needs and that results in a win-win, rather than a win-lose," Staffon said.

Josh Sorvik, a Duluth resident paralyzed in a ski accident at age 18, said he still likes to paddle but has had some close calls with motorized traffic at public boat launches, especially given his low profile in the seat of a wheelchair.

"There's been a couple different times when I've almost been run over by somebody when they're trying to get their boat in the water," he said. "In all honesty, it's not always safe, and it's frustrating, and it's difficult."

But a number of local residents have consistently opposed the project, in spite of the fact that it was scaled back significantly from its original proposed design. Those critics have included Mike Casey, chairman of the Friends of West Duluth Parks and Trails.

He expressed support for the idea of a universal water access for paddlers, saying: "I believe that this design is needed but not here."

Casey argued that the area in question is worthy of protection from further development.


"This area, Tallas Bay, is quite unique. It's a micro-estuary that is quiet and holds some great wildlife up close to you. Not every park needs to have full access complete with roads and parking," he said.

For the majority of councilors however, the merits of the project outweighed critics' concerns.

"People in our community with disabilities have been waiting for years for this city to seriously address the lack of opportunities for accessible outdoor recreation, in the same way that people with disabilities in our community and our country are often told to wait, because something else is important. And if we vote this down tonight, we're once again saying to people in our community with disabilities, wait. And I'm not prepared tonight to say that," said 2nd District City Councilor Joel Sipress.

But two councilors - Gary Anderson and Renee Van Nett - remained unconvinced that the Tallas Bay location was the best spot for such a facility

"What I've heard over and over again, especially in the past couple of weeks as these resolutions were coming to a head, was that there are citizens who really, really do not feel comfortable with the way this process was carried out," Anderson said.

"I do not feel we've done our due diligence on this. I think we can do better," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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