NEW ULM - The controversial proposal to build a new water tower in Nehls Park caused a tense meeting of New Ulm City Council on Tuesday. After over an hour and a half of debate, the Council approved the plan by a 4-1 vote.
Councilor Ken RockVam, who represents the ward in which the tower would be built, cast the negative vote.
The New Ulm Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) proposal seeks to build a 500,000-gallon water tower in Nehls Park to replace the crumbling Hermann Heights water tower. The new tower would meet the 321,000-gallon increase in water by 2035 due to population growth.
This illustration, provided by city officials, shows an example of the water tower that could be built in Nehls Park. The tower would be 160 feet high.
The majority of the 40 audience members at the meeting were residents of the Nehls Park area who strongly oppose the plan, claiming the tower will ruin the park.
New Ulm Public Utilities Planning and Development Engineer Pat Wrase presented the needs and restrictions that led to the Nehls plan. He explained that current PUC setup had the hilltop's ground tanks servicing downhill residents, the Hermann Heights water tank servicing most hilltop residences and the New Ulm Municipal Airport water tank servicing the industrial growth area by Menards. He said that a leak in the Hermann tank last December showed it need immediate replacement, but locations for the new tower were restricted by several factors.
First, current FAA regulations had nixed prior efforts to build a tower elsewhere and prohibited building in a big portion of the hilltop area due to interference with air traffic.
Second, the density of residences on the small hilltop area limited the areas a tower could be built without problems or prohibitive costs.
Finally, the PUC is unlikely to be able to build at the current Hermann Heights location. The New Ulm Park and Recreation Department and the Minnesota Historical Society opposed building a new tower in Hermann Heights, because it would interfere with the master plan for expanding the park. Since the Hermann Monument is now a national monument, the Minnesota Historical Society has some authority over construction in the area. FAA regulations could also prohibit building a new tower. The airport tank and Hermann tank are allowed because they were built before regulations changed.
Wrase said Nehls Park was selected for its non-existent cost, remoteness from most residences and location near a new 12-inch water main that can handle the water demand. He said the site can also back fill broken pipes near the airport tower. He argued the location would not visually impair the park and would not disrupt park activities, like frisbee golf.
Wrase also addressed other proposed sites. He said building in a vacant lot across from Nehls was too small and could disrupt nearby homes. He said that building westward outside regulated areas would require the tower to be a mile and a half away, with the added cost of $1 million to $2 million in new piping. Finally, he said that building on the privately owned golf course area would add purchase costs and depends on the owner being willing to sell. He said the tower was cost neutral for PUC customers, but any additional costs could result in raising utilities rates.
Opponents of the plan were not appeased by the presentation and still argued the plan would disrupt the park. They argued that the City had no right to diminish any park, particularly the one near their homes..
Paul Boehlke, a resident near Nehls Park, presented a petition with 148 signatures against the plan. He argued that even though there was no City cost for building in Nehls Park, there was an intangible value lost by disrupting the park.
"Aesthetics is everything when is comes to a park," said Boehlke.
Joel Boehlke, candidate for Ward 1 on the Council, spoke about how he would campaign for office on protecting the parks. He said the city's founders highly valued parks and that the City was continually sacrificing them to bring in industry.
Council Chair Charles Schmitz responded by stating that the project was only for dealing with the hilltop's current and future water needs. He said the airport tower already serviced the industrial area.
RockVam sided with the opponents of the plan. He wanted to see if an alternate location like the golf course could work. He argued the council should see if the landowner would donate the land or sell at a low price, even if it was unlikely.
"I realize we're projected to be 321,000 gallons short of what we'll need into 2035. We need water. We can't exist without it," said RockVam, "I'm just not in favor of Nehls Park. Where else can it be put? I don't know, but I want to keep looking."
His speech received applause from the audience.
Council approval authorizes the PUC to begin drawing up plans and cost estimates for building the water tower in Nehls Park.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)