Edgcumbe Road residents sue St. Paul over tree removal, new sidewalks

Edgcumbe Road residents sue St. Paul over tree removal, new sidewalks

Along St. Paul’s Edgcumbe Road, residents are rallying to save the trees and stop the sidewalks, all in the name of preserving shade, natural habitat, aesthetics and “neighborhood quietude.”

St. Paul Public Works has long planned the second phase of the Griggs-Scheffer road paving project in Highland Park, which would mill and overlay or fully reconstruct a series of streets in the area bounded by Eleanor Avenue, Hamline Avenue, Montreal Avenue and Interstate 35E.

Along six blocks of Edgcumbe Road running south of Highland Parkway, residents say plans call for widening the road — a heavily tree-lined street with a large, grassy median in the middle — and removing up to 100 mature trees. In their place, the project would install something homeowners there are fully unaccustomed to outside their doorways — paved walking areas.

The sidewalks would be a novelty for the leafy, parkway-style street, and the impending changes form the crux of a new lawsuit against the city. The plaintiffs say their alternative proposal would still add new sidewalks without as much tree removal, an option the city has chosen not to adopt.

CIVIL SUIT

The 13-page civil suit, filed June 28 in Ramsey County District Court by Joe Sarakaitis, Mark Wingerd and other members of the Edgcumbe Road Neighborhood Preservation Group, seeks a temporary restraining order against the road project under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

The act allows private citizens to bring legal action against a party in the name of the state of Minnesota, with the goal of protecting air, water, land or other natural resources. The plaintiffs, who seek to enjoin the city from placing bids on the road work, are represented by Benjamin Loetscher of the Ferdinand F. Peters law firm in St. Paul.

The city has yet to file its legal response. “As with all street projects, city staff have worked with residents to balance the many needs of the neighborhood throughout the design, planning and construction phases,” said City Attorney Lyndsey Olson, in an email. “We remain committed to this engagement, as we continue to invest in safe, walkable neighborhoods across our city.”

The city adopted its citywide five-year street reconstruction plan in February 2020, after which the two property owners and other Edgcumbe Road residents objected to the road work during a public meeting, according to the plaintiffs’ legal filing.

THREATENED TREES

The lawsuit states several of the threatened trees are several decades or even more than a century old and “cannot be readily replaced by planting new, young trees, which do not offer the same habitats and protection as mature trees.” It goes on to say the “shade and aesthetic quality” is “similarly irreplaceable,” as is “neighborhood quietude.”

The suit states neighbors hired landscape architect Stephen Mastey to design an alternative proposal that “would accomplish the same goals … but with considerably less harm to the aesthetic quality of the neighborhood, the mature trees and other natural resources.”

Sarakaitis, in an interview, said he counted 80 large trees and 20 medium-sized trees during a walk of the area.

“Our landscape architect said anything (installed) within 10 feet of the sidewalk, you really run the risk of root damage,” Sarakaitis said. “The city says their engineer is planning to work around some of those old trees, but they really haven’t been communicative at all about what exactly they’re doing. We might lose 50 trees. We might lose 75 trees. It might be 100.”

He said residents recently received word from the city that the Edgcumbe project, which was once scheduled to begin June 1, will be delayed until September.

“I’m an old runner, and if they put a walking path down the middle of the median, that would be a great thing to do,”  Sarakaitis said. “But the city doesn’t want to do that because then they’d have to take care of it.”

Mastey’s proposal, which was presented to the city in October, would narrow the streets slightly while still allowing for street parking and sidewalk construction, the plaintiffs said.

The lawsuit states that Public Works officials rejected the idea without explanation, “vaguely claimed” at a recent city council meeting that the project would result in a net increase in trees and stopped corresponding with the neighborhood group altogether in March.

The city then approved the project and began soliciting bids, though roadwork appears on hold until at least the fall.

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