Saturday, November 1, 2014
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Development of 'green and wild' island causing intense debate
Larger view
Whiteside, or Clough, Island sits in the St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. The island was once home to a farm, but is now largely covered with wild vegetation and wetlands. A developer proposes building homes, shops, and a golf course on the island. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Battle lines are being drawn over a controversial proposal to develop a housing and recreational project on an island between Duluth and Superior. Superior's City Council is considering a rezoning request to support the development. Promoters say the project would provide new jobs and badly needed property tax revenue. But opponents say the undeveloped island is an important haven for birds and fish.

Superior, Wis. — So far, only a concept has been revealed, but it's ambitious.

Twin Cities-based developers are proposing a project on a 315-acre island in the St. Louis River, between Duluth and Superior. The island, which has been known as Clough Island, is being renamed Whiteside Island by the developers.

The project could include hundreds of condominiums and vacation homes, a luxury hotel, restaurant and retail space, and an 18-hole golf course. It would need some sort of transportation to connect it to Superior and Duluth, such as a bridge, ferry or even a tram.

All this on an island that now is green and wild -- in the middle of a prized fishery and birding area.

"The St. Louis River estuary is a world-class important bird area," says Dave Carman, who directs Duluth's Hawk Ridge organization. "It's visited by people not only from throughout the United States, but from around the world. It's globally known as an important bird area."

Standing high on an overlooking hill, Carman spots an eagle's nest on a smaller island nearby. He says the eagles would probably leave if humans move in. Carman says the estuary has already been pushed back from Lake Superior's edge by a century of development on Duluth's waterfront.

"Now we're talking about clipping away yet another piece of it," says Carman. "And, as you can see here today, it's the heart of the estuary. It's the heart of the remaining natural part of the estuary."

Carman worries how the project would affect Whiteside Island's unique combination of habitats, including waterfront, hardwoods, wetlands, and grasslands. He worries that the island's soft clay soil might erode into the St. Louis River.

Dave Zentner, who heads a regional chapter of the Izaak Walton League, recalls that millions of dollars have been spent to improve the St. Louis River's water quality.

Those steps have increased the number of fish in the river, and as a result, thousands of anglers a year now come to the area. Zentner says a project this size would have to degrade both the estuary and the fishery.

"Everyone I've talked to that knows any biology, knows birds, animals, fish -- even though this is only a vision at this point ... knows that this would have an incredibly negative impact," Zentner says.

A better use for the island, Zentner says, would be as a park or a public recreation area.

"A much smaller development would challenge us to do it in the right way," Zentner says. "It's possible, I think, to do it in the right way. But this project would have a hard, hard impact."

John Stainbrook, the project manager for the developer, Progress Land Company, disagrees. Stainbrook says he understands the environmental concerns, but says they're premature. At this point, he says, the project is just a concept.

"They're raising emotional questions to sidestep what they just don't want to see happen," Stainbrook says.

Stainbrook says the golf course and clustered housing would preserve much of the island's green space.

"With the preservation of as much forest land around that, and the amount of open space that we would preserve ... it wouldn't impose that big of an impact," says Stainbrook. "I'm not a bird expert, so it's hard for me to say that with a lot of authority or conviction, because I have to rely on other people that have that expertise to guide me."

Stainbrook says it's likely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will require extensive studies, including an Environmental Impact Statement. He says the project will be done to the letter of the law.

"I don't think we'll please everybody, especially ... the really highly sensitive environmental people," Stainbrook says. "They don't want to see anything touched out in that region. But I think that the opportunity for the City of Superior is very strong, and we want to make that a possibility, and a reality if at all possible."

If the City of Superior rezones the island, the developers can begin to apply for permits from the city, the State of Wisconsin and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each step comes with renewed opportunities for public input. If it's a go, the entire project would be phased in over several years.

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