Citizens split on Mill Ruins hydropower plant

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March 29, 2004 // UPDATED 10:27 am - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Some question whether the public had enough notice before a possible April 7 vote -- but there's still time to comment

Alternative energy backers and Downtown residents presented different views of a proposed hydroelectric plant near St. Anthony Falls in Mill Ruins Park.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board held a public hearing March 17, and the 13 speakers were fairly evenly divided.

Crown Hydro LLC proposes building a $10 million, 3.2-megawatt plant on Park Board land next to the Stone Arch Bridge just west of Portland Avenue.

Crown Hydro supporters at the public hearing included Sheldon Strom, executive director of Downtown-based Center for Energy and the Environment, Bill Grant, associate executive director of the Midwest office of the Isaac Walton League, and Michael Noble, executive director of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

"The Park Board's decision is a matter of leadership," Noble said. "We think it is important to connect our past and our future."

Opponents and others wary of the project included Downtown residents Mary Marsden, Steve Deruyter and Sage Cowles.

Marsden said the hydro project would mean less water going over St. Anthony Falls and make the park look more like an industrial area. "It would detract from the riverfront aesthetic," she said.

Ex-politicos weighed in. Former Park Board Commissioner Ralph Swenson said Crown Hydro would be "an important addition to our interpretation of local history. We shouldn't be ashamed of the industrial connection."

Former City Councilmember Dick Miller said Commissioners should base their votes on facts, "not emotion about what might happen."

Northeast resident Erik Johnson said he supported renewable energy as long as St. Anthony Falls didn't become "the St. Anthony wet area."

With the exception of Commissioner Carol Kummer, who has stated her strong support for the project, other board members have expressed indecision.

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic said "I am with the public: 50-50 split."

Commissioner Annie Young, a Green Party member said "I know renewable energy is thing to do. ... I'm not sure it is the right location."

The Park Board needs to approve the lease with a two-thirds vote, or six of the nine Commissioners. It could vote on the 50-year lease as early as April 7.

Public input lacking?

Crown Hydro backers have worked on the project for more than a decade. Their project now faces regulatory deadlines. Park Board President Jon Olson referred to it as "a train going 100 miles per hour."

Olson and Commissioner Vivian Mason, who represents Downtown's west bank, have sharply differing opinions on whether the Park Board has done enough to inform the public about the lease and the project. Mason, a perennial Park Board outsider, has had ongoing battles with the majority on how it does business.

The Park Board released the details of the Crown Hydro lease at a March 3 Planning Committee meeting. Mason was vacationing in Mexico at the time and had no prior indication the issue would surface, she said.

Mason said she had more questions about the project -- from its impacts on historic sites to pollution cleanup -- and the Park Board needed more time to discuss the


Further, she said, many Downtown residents only learned of the public hearing, and the details of the lease through news accounts published March 15 and March 17 -- leaving little time to react.

"Too often, the Park Board has moved too quickly," said Mason.

Olson said the Park Board had given the public sufficient time to comment.

"The fact is, it is a project that has been kicked around for 15 years," he said. "We are not the only agency that has dealt with this. We tried to give the public some notification of what is going on. No one else has. We can only do so much."

Olson said the Park Board did not contact Downtown neighborhood groups about the project. He did call the Star Tribune and request an article on the topic.

He said Mason missed the March 3 meeting and said her criticism was "out of line." Staff has given the Board periodic updates.

Further, residents could still contact Commissioners prior to the vote, he said. People should write the Board at 2117 W. River Rd. N., Minneapolis, MN 55411. Each Commissioner would get a copy.

P. Victor Grambsch, president of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association, said the Park Board could do a better job of communicating. "Many neighborhood groups have had difficulties in dealing with the Park Board," he said.

That said, Grambsch said he had been aware of the Crown Hydro proposal (though he thought the project was dead), and he supports alternative energy.

When he read about the proposed lease in the newspaper, he called Crown Hydro and representatives agreed to make a presentation to the neighborhood group's annual meeting. It is Tuesday, March 30, 6-8 p.m., at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 1 Lourdes Place.

The deal

Crown Hydro would reopen the historic "headrace" canal above the falls -- the channel that diverted water to power the mills. Crown would build its plant within the footprint of the old Cataract Mill.

Under the proposed lease, Crown Hydro would pay the Park Board a $30,000 annual payment with inflation adjustment, a $100,000 one-time payment and share profits those years power production exceeds its annual target of 20 million kilowatts.

It would also shut down if the water over St. Anthony Falls hit a low of 300 cubic feet per second, or approximately 4.5 inches of water over the spillway. (Park Board policy has a preferred flow of 2,000 cubic feet per second.)

Crown Hydro needs a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate on the site -- and to do that they need the Park Board lease. FERC gave Crown Hydro a 90-day deadline. The 90 days expires April 14, Crown Hydro backers say.