1964 Aerial

This was one exhibit presented by Hy-Vee in seeking permission eliminate part of a wetland to build a new store near the MSU campus. The store site, marked with the red arrow, has a marshy area now, but 60 years ago it was a runway at the old Mankato airport.

Q: I have some questions/concerns about the new Hy-Vee, and I’m not the only one, so perhaps you would consider writing an article.

As we know, river quality here is a concern. The city is talking about wetland restoration as a way to help clean up the river. As I understand it, the new Hy-Vee to be built near MSU is being built on wetland.

... I know there are rules regarding disturbing and/or destruction of wetlands. What are they? Why are we destroying the few remaining wetlands in the city? Who is consulted to help make the decisions regarding the impact of disturbing wetlands? Are the long-term consequences being considered?

A: The reader mentioned other wetlands that he or she believes are being undermined by private development and new roadways, as well as the loss of green spaces in Mankato as the city steadily expands. And there were questions about whether city officials consider environmental impacts when granting permits to development projects.

It’s a longstanding and complex issue. Countless wetlands have been drained for farming, residential neighborhoods, commercial development and new roads in Mankato since the city’s founding more than 150 years ago.

But the Hy-Vee proposal provides a case study of how modern environmental regulations — primarily the Wetland Conservation Act — apply to new developments. When the Des Moines-based supermarket chain created its new “Fast and Fresh” concept, which involves stores that could either be seen as mini-supermarkets or mega-convenience stores, the Minnesota State University area was one of the first areas targeted.

The site selected early in 2017 is near the intersection of Stadium Road and Heron Drive, just east of the Kwik Trip store on the eastern edge of the MSU campus. The location is about as far as possible from the existing full-size Hy-Vees on Riverfront Drive (nearly two miles away) and on Adams Street (more than 2.5 miles). And it’s conveniently located for 14,000 hungry MSU students and the growing residential area on Mankato’s south side.

Obtaining approval to build took 14 months, however, with the wetland on the parcel being a prime reason.

Hy-Vee hired the ISG engineering firm to do a study and help guide the project through the wetland mitigation process, which involves a review — and ultimately a recommendation — by a technical evaluation panel made up of staff from the city, Blue Earth County Soil and Water Resources District and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Early in Hy-Vee’s application, it was made clear the wetland at the corner of Heron and Stadium wasn’t a virgin marsh. Aerial photos were presented showing that any natural wetlands had been converted to farm fields by the 1930s. And by the 1960s, the site of the new Hy-Vee was a runway at the old Mankato airport.

After the airport was relocated and Stadium Road was extended through the area, the parcel became a wet spot and ultimately a wetland. But not a good one, according to Nick McCabe, the ISG senior environmental scientist who did the study for Hy-Vee.

“The overall quality of the wetland was not great with respect to the vegetative community, aesthetics, wildlife habitat, etc.,” McCabe wrote, listing several invasive plant species, along with trash and piles of brush and debris.

Nonetheless, it was a wetland under Minnesota environmental regulations, and McCabe determined that two-thirds of an acre would be destroyed by the Hy-Vee project.

Hy-Vee then had to document why it could not reasonably avoid the destruction of wetland habitat or at least further minimize the impact.

The only way to completely protect the wetland was to not build the store. But that would leave MSU and neighborhoods to the south — technically a “food desert” under federal definitions — without a new source of fresh produce, according to Hy-Vee’s application. Shifting the store farther west was problematic due to traffic flow and an “exorbitant” asking price for that parcel that would have quadrupled land acquisition costs and made the project financially unfeasible.

Another option — Hy-Vee’s original preference for a 16,000-square-foot store — would eliminate 1 acre of wetland. Other alternatives had wetland impacts of .83 acres and .9 acres.

The preferred alternative cut the impact to .67 acres, met city preferences for traffic movement and met Hy-Vee’s needs. Hy-Vee, however, had to cut the size of the store to just under 8,000 square feet — meaning it will be one of the chain’s smaller Fast and Fresh stores.

Finally, as required by law, Hy-Vee agreed to replace the lost wetland in a 2-to-1 ratio. That involved paying more than $52,000 to support 1.34 acres of new wetland in a “wetland bank” in Lyon County near Granite Falls.

The technical evaluation panel accepted the plan with conditions, including that Hy-Vee will have to restore or replace a city-owned wetland adjacent to the Fast and Fresh if it’s negatively impacted by the development. The Mankato Planning Commission and the City Council approved the plan more than a year ago, and city officials expect the store to be built in 2020.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.

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