Park Board rejects Crown Hydro

Updated: April 25, 2007 - 1:42 pm

In the blink of an eye, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board rejected a proposed land lease for a new hydroelectric plant near the Stone Arch Bridge's Downtown landfall, in Mill Ruins Park.

After months of deliberation, public hearings, open houses and lobbying, only four of nine Commissioners supported the Crown Hydro lease, two shy of the six-vote supermajority needed to approve it.

Crown Hydro has spent a dozen years and $3 million trying to jump start the plant, and the May 19 vote leaves its future very much in doubt.

Peter Grills, Crown Hydro's attorney, called the vote "very disappointing" and said the company would have to assess its next move.

"We will have to regroup and see what we can do," he said.

The outcome should have come as no surprise. Four Commissioners -- John Erwin, Annie Young, Rochelle Berry Graves and Vivian Mason -- said weeks ago they would oppose the lease. Because the lengthy lease -- 50 years with a 50-year option -- was considered tantamount to a land sale, two-thirds of the Park Board needed to approve it, meaning four "no" votes ensured defeat.

Commissioner Walt Dziedzic called for a vote as soon as Commissioner Bob Fine moved to approve the Crown Hydro lease. Dziedzic joined the dissenters.

Dziedzic, who represents the East Bank side of the Mississippi riverfront across from where Crown Hydro would be built, said he had received several hundred calls and e-mails from residents, the vast majority opposing the lease. Xcel has a hydroelectric plant on the falls' east shore and could add 3 megawatts of power -- the amount Crown Hydro would produce -- without any risk to Mill Ruins Park, he said.

Commissioners Bob Fine, Carol Kummer, Marie Hauser and Jon Olson voted for the lease. All represent non-Downtown park districts.

The Crown Hydro proposal faces multiple deadlines.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has given Crown Hydro until June 11 to secure the lease, Grills said. Even if the plant gets the lease, it must produce energy by Dec. 31, 2005 or it loses a critical state energy payment bonus of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Grills said he didn't know how soon Crown Hydro had to start construction, but said he was sure the deadline "is coming up quickly."

Former Park Board Commissioner and current City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) did some light-hearted lobbying in the hallways prior to the board meeting.

"You better vote for Crown Hydro or I'll come and get you in the middle of the night," joked Zimmermann, a Green Party member to Young (also a Green) and Erwin.

Responded Young, "I guess you'll have to come and get me."

Crown Hydro backers said the project would provide renewable energy, help with the historic interpretation of the area and provide the Park Board revenue. It proposed making approximately $1 million in park improvements, a one-time $100,000 payment and a $30,000 annual payment, with escalators and profit sharing in high-production years.

The project could not overcome opposition from the growing riverfront neighborhood. Approximately three dozen residents attended the Park Board meeting to encourage the lease's defeat, among them Cynthia Kriha of Humboldt Lofts, 750 2nd St. S.

"I am very relieved the Park Board is retaining stewardship of Mill Ruins Park," said Kriha, who moved into the neighborhood in January and helped organize residents in the 36-unit building to oppose Crown Hydro's lease.

Residents raised concerns about diverting water from the falls and said Crown Hydro would affect the area's aesthetics, giving the area a more industrial feel.

The Historical Society also raised strong concerns about the potential impact on the area's archeology. Although Crown Hydro said it would do a thorough assessment, the society's leadership said it was the Park Board responsibility to do the assessment, not a private company' job.