Although Oak Park Heights officials did not attend the board meeting, they vehemently objected to the plan in a letter sent to the county board on Friday.

Over objections from officials in Oak Park Heights, the Washington County Board on Tuesday voted to take over part of a street in the city to create a connection in the Manning Avenue corridor south of Minnesota 36.

Washington County officials plan to use state law to recategorize 58th Street between Memorial Avenue and Stillwater Boulevard as a county road. Under Minnesota statute 163.11, any roadway in a county can be recategorized as a county road. The county would then be responsible for maintenance and improvements to that road.

County officials have been looking for ways to create a connection in the Manning Avenue corridor – “the backbone of the county” – for more than 30 years, said Kevin Peterson, a design engineer for Washington County. Extending 58th Street would create a link between the southern and northern portions of Manning, also known as Washington County 15, he said.

Currently, southbound Manning Avenue ends at Minnesota 36. To continue south, drivers must get on Minnesota 36 and drive east to Stillwater Boulevard where Manning Avenue resumes and takes drivers into Lake Elmo.

The “disconnection … introduces a gap in the bike and pedestrian trail system in the area, while requiring motorists desiring to continue on a north-south trip to utilize this busy trunk highway for a very short distance,” Peterson told the county board on Tuesday. “No other county highway within Washington County operates this way.”

The new connection also would provide an alternate – and safer – route to nearby Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, helping alleviate some of the traffic congestion around the school, especially during the morning, Peterson said.

Oak Park Heights officials object to move

Although Oak Park Heights officials did not attend the board meeting, they vehemently objected to the plan in a letter sent to the county board on Friday.

“We again offer and can unilaterally document that at no time has the county made a honest effort to engage the city of Oak Park Heights, our business community and our other partners that would be expected for a project of this scale,” the five Oak Park Heights City Council members wrote. “Instead, the county has given all deference to the city of Stillwater and a developer without regard to the  specific community of Oak Park Heights in which a significant part of the project is located and will most  directly impact.”

Invoking state statute to take over the road would “certainly not aid in altering Oak Park Heights’ lack of support for this proposal … given the lack of honest process, lack of legitimate documentation of need, and unwillingness to even discuss nor address the possible impacts in our community,” they wrote.

But Commissioner Fran Miron said Tuesday that the city’s “continued opposition” has left officials from both jurisdictions at an impasse.

“We have a regional vision, a regional responsibility, that as a county that we take upon ourselves when it comes to addressing safety needs,” Miron said. “That’s not only Safe Routes to School, but it’s ambulance and access to hospitals. It’s our public-safety personnel getting to various areas throughout the county in a relatively quick fashion. This road, in my mind, is sorely needed. I think we need to stay on schedule.”

Project part of improvement plan

The project is part of the county’s five-year capital improvement plan and is eligible to be funded through the county’s transportation sales tax. County officials have budgeted $9.4 million for the project; construction is planned for 2025.

When Commissioner Karla Bigham asked how long the section of roadway in question was, Peterson told her it was 782 feet.

“When you look at the big picture, which is what we need to do as representatives of the county, this needs to happen,” Bigham said. “I hope that the city of Oak Park Heights will engage in the discussion over 782 feet.”

In their letter, Oak Park Heights City Council members wrote that the project “will require city investment in infrastructure on Memorial Avenue that is not currently needed with existing traffic load, but will likely become necessary if this project moves forward.”

“The project would increase traffic burdens in our community at Stillwater Boulevard and 58th Street and yet is not expected to offer our city with a clear, nor sustainable, fiscal benefit to address those burdens. The county has refused to engage or consider these impacts. To make matters worse, our studies show that this project likely will stress our existing businesses, potentially resulting in business closures which impacts our tax base in a time horizon where our city is facing the imminent closure of the A.S. King Plant.”

Xcel Energy plans to close the Allen S. King power plant in 2028.

Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber said after the meeting that she hopes county officials will agree to study current and future traffic-flow patterns and loads as soon as 58th Street is extended — and not wait until 2027, as the county has proposed.

“The impacts are probably going to be immediate,” McComber said. “More people are probably going to be using 58th to get to places like the high school, Kowalski’s, Walmart, Menards. If they want to avoid 36, they’re going to be using 58th. It’s going to become a secondary road, basically. … I really want to work out some of these details. I think we need to have good communication going forward. The county made a decision, and we’ll have to work with them.”

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