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City considers appeal on new watershed boundaries

The city of Cottage Grove may take legal action over the state Board of Water and Soil Resources' reversal of an earlier boundary decision this month that city officials characterized as a politically motivated move.

Cottage Grove officials expressed outrage at the decision, which came after a Woodbury resident petitioned the board, which has redrawn the new watershed district boundaries in line with those proposed by the city of Woodbury.

The neighboring cities are on opposite sides of a battle over water management in south Washington County.

"A homeowner's issue that has nothing to do with any of this was used to draw a line on a map," said Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey.

Cottage Grove officials last week expressed anger over the board's reversal, saying board members mischaracterized the level of opposition to changes pushed by the city of Woodbury and ignored the wishes of other municipalities involved.

The Board of Soil and Water Resources voted 10-9 Dec. 16 to support the petition after staff and a committee of board members recommended the change.

"Our board members, with their vote, showed that it wasn't that easy," said Jim Haertel, metro region supervisor for the Board of Water and Soil Resources, referring to the close vote.

While the board reversed its earlier decision, its support for the petition is in line with how watershed boundaries have been established elsewhere in Minnesota, Haertel said.

A 30-day window to file an appeal of the decision with the Minnesota State Court of Appeals expires in mid-January.

"Frankly, our level of trust in the process ... has been significantly impacted by this whole thing," said city administrator Ryan Schroeder. "We feel it has not been an open and unbiased process."

Watershed districts are special government bodies that monitor and regulate water issues in watersheds surrounding lakes or rivers.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources in May dissolved the Lower St. Croix Watershed Management Organization and drew new, larger boundaries for the South Washington and Valley Branch watershed districts.

At the recommendation of city councils or boards in Cottage Grove, Hastings, Afton and Denmark Township, as well as Washington County commissioners, the Board of Water and Soil Resources approved a plan that placed all of Denmark Township and Cottage Grove within the South Washington Watershed District.

Woodbury has been a chief opponent of that plan. It went to the Court of Appeals to argue that the new boundaries do not follow a naturally occurring watershed boundary dividing water flow between the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. Instead, the city has argued, the boundaries were drawn for political reasons primarily favoring Denmark Township.

Woodbury officials are reconsidering the city's pending appeal.

Now, Schroeder said, it's Cottage Grove who feels it's being shut out.

"There hasn't been an understanding of all the parties of what everybody's goals are, what their level of interest is (and) what their preferred outcomes would be," Schroeder said in an interview. That, he said, has "caused Woodbury to feel like their concerns weren't being addressed. The result is, now, we feel like our concerns aren't being addressed."