Clear Lakers face losing homes to siting of depot
By Ken Francis
For the hundreds of drivers who pass through Clear Lake on Hwy. 24 each day, the short stretch of land between Hwy. 10 and the railroad tracks probably goes unnoticed.
But for some people, it’s home.
Since 1965, Gary Mealhouse and his wife Geraldine have lived in the same house they built there, just 75 feet from the busy Burlington Northern train line.
“We get at least 50 trains or so passing by each day,” he says. “But after living here a while, you don’t even hear them anymore.”
If the proposed Clear Lake commuter rail station is built by Northstar Corridor on their preferred site, Mealhouse and four other property owners on that small “island” of land will be forced to leave.
“It’s a nice place to live,” says Mealhouse, who retired from Surburban Lighting in Stillwater in 1993.
“My family has been here for generations,” he says. “And I would hate to leave after all these years.”
Alice Laughton, Geraldine’s mother, and their next door neighbor, has lived there for 50 years. And Gary’s parents owned Skelly’s, a gas station that once stood along Hwy. 10, just on the other side of Laughton’s house.
Skelly’s was one of a few small businesses that were forced to close when MnDOT widened Hwy. 10, so Mealhouse was concerned when he heard about the proposed rail station a few months ago.
“People were telling us we might lose our house, so we went to the meeting to see what the plan was,” he says. “That’s when we saw that they also wanted to close the Market Street crossing. The people were really upset about that.”
That railroad crossing is the only alternative to the Hwy. 24 crossing. Not only is it important for the safety of the city’s residents, but it is also essential to the farmers who do business at Clear Lake Farmers Elevator, located directly across the tracks from the Mealhouse property.
“There are a lot of farmers that use it as a safety valve rather than going down Hwy. 24 and risk getting in an accident,” says Terry Gullick, computer controller at the elevator.
Gullick has witnessed the daily traffic congestion caused by the frequent passing trains, especially during harvest season.
“When a train crosses, depending on the time of year, traffic could be backed up all the way out of town,” he says. “And now they want to add more cars coming to the station and close one of the two crossings. I just don’t think this was really thought through by the DOT.”
With the new Hunter Lake Bluffs development under construction north of the tracks, a significant future population would be cut off from fire and rescue squads if only one crossing remained and was obstructed.
“You can’t leave those people stranded,” says Gullick. “But we’ve already been told by Burlington Northern at the meeting that once they close that crossing, they will not allow another one to be built.”
Northstar’s first idea, which they later scrapped, was to build the station on the opposite side of Hwy. 24, which would have allowed the Market Street crossing to remain.
Harry Aanden, who manages the elevator, thinks the station should not be built near the intersection at all.
“I don’t really think there’s room inside the city limits,” he says. “They should go further east or west where the other crossings are.”
That was also the response of the city council, who voted to disapprove the plan unless the station was relocated outside city limits.
Clear Lake City Clerk Marilyn Bujalski agrees with Terry Gullick that the plan was not thought out with the city, or its residents, in mind.
“When they rejected our other proposals, it felt like they never really wanted our input,” she says. “There were so many things we pointed out that would cause problems for us, but they said this plan was only 10% complete and things could be changed.”
Besides the major opposition to the closing of the rail crossing, the question of who was responsible for maintenance costs of the station was never answered.
“Northstar originally said that the city would probably not be responsible for that cost,” says Bujalski. “But they weren’t sure.”
“Whoever is responsible would end up paying about $30 thousand a year,” she says. “But our entire levy for the city is only $33 thousand. How could they expect us to approve their plan without knowing who would pay?”
“We also had questions about their design, like getting handicapped people onto the train during the 40 seconds it would be stopped at the station,” she explains. “We don’t object to having a station, but there were just too many problems with that site, and it was already obvious that they wouldn’t compromise on the railroad crossing issue.”
Northstar will continue to work to help the city find a satisfactory place for the station, says Northstar chairperson Betsy Wergin. And residents like Gary Mealhouse are hoping they will keep him in mind as they look for answers.
“I think having the train is a good idea,” he says. “And I know sometimes people have to move away. I just hope they do the right thing.”