REGIONAL— Residents along hundreds of miles of wooded backroads throughout St. Louis County have received letters from the county’s public works department in recent days, notifying them …
REGIONAL— Residents along hundreds of miles of wooded backroads throughout St. Louis County have received letters from the county’s public works department in recent days, notifying them of a plan to significantly expand the clear zone along their roads.
The right-of-way clearing program is being funded by $750,000 in proceeds from the CARES Act, the federal legislation passed earlier this year to address costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. County commissioners have been looking for ways to help area loggers who have been impacted by the shutdown of the Verso paper mill in Duluth, along with a number of temporary shutdowns at other mills in the region.
About 300 miles of county road were scheduled in the initial plan, which included hiring out-of-work loggers to do the roadway clearing, with contracts ranging from $10,000 to as much as $50,000. But county officials say the budget didn’t go as far as they had hoped and that many of the miles of road right-of-way that had been slated for clearing won’t get done, at least not anytime soon.
“A number of roads that we originally planned to get done under the CARES act funding which had notification letters sent out will not get done,” stated Jim Foldesi, director of St. Louis County Public Works. “We will be notifying the property owners on those roads,” he added.
While county officials did receive one or two phone calls in response to the notification letter, Foldesi said the program hasn’t proven controversial in most cases. “The great majority of folks are happy to hear that the right-of-way is getting cleared to help with roadside safety, deer visibility, and snow and ice control. Occasionally there are concerns about certain mature trees or screening in front of homes that we address on a case-by-case basis.”
County Commissioner Paul McDonald, who visited with residents along the Holter Road in Vermilion Lake Township on Monday to discuss the clearing program, noted that some county roads have serious problems with deer strikes and those areas are likely to be a focus of the effort. He said the county is also trying to coordinate the work with planned broadband expansions in places like Wuori and Sandy townships, where clearing might help crews who later install fiber optic cable along county roads in that area. Under the program, the standard 66-foot rights-of-way would be cleared of most vegetation. In some cases that would push the clear zone back 10-15 feet past the outside edges of ditches on both sides of the road.
County officials who proposed the clearing program argue that it will improve public safety and will provide a prepared route for any future broadband expansion into the affected areas.
“We have been doing clearing in house with our own maintenance staff and equipment with some contracting as well,” noted Foldesi. “The CARES Act program will help us accelerate some of that planned work by our maintenance districts, which is great.”
Foldesi noted that right-of-way clearing has taken a back seat to other priorities such as pavement maintenance, culvert replacements, roadside ditching and other activities over the years and he said it is beginning to show across the county’s road network. “Starting about three years ago we have increased our efforts in this area by purchasing equipment to make us more efficient at clearing. During lower snow years we are able to focus on clearing when we are not plowing in the winter. The goal is to create a cyclical “clearing plan” for each maintenance district that will keep our rights-of-way clear from year to year.”