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Project raises fears for birds
The Minnesota DNR is concerned that the Hawk Ridge Estates development could harm migrating hawks and songbirds.
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune

Are the Hawk Ridge Estates for the birds?

Developers say the proposed housing project will be among the most bird-friendly ever built in the area.

But state officials fear hawk and songbird migration will be hurt by the proposed 112-home development, to be located just below Hawk Ridge Nature Preserve.

Duluth's Planning Commission will review the project's environmental assessment worksheet this evening to determine whether concerns have been addressed adequately. After receiving public comment, commissioners are expected to vote on the plan.

The site is at a funnel point along the region's largest hawk and songbird migration route. Birds congregate in the area to avoid flying over Lake Superior. Many also stop to rest and feed.

Those factors have raised concerns among Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife and ecological experts. They say the homes will reduce critical habitat and increase mortality for low-flying birds, especially birds hitting windows and vehicles.

"Important wildlife habitat will be permanently lost and degraded as a result of this proposed project. Migrating birds will be significantly impacted," the DNR says in a letter to the city.

While the DNR can't veto the project, it can seek changes and ask the city to reject the environmental review. The state or other parties also can file a lawsuit to stop or change the plans.

"It is a seriously worded letter. But Hawk Ridge is sacred ground to some people. It's an extremely significant area, both for birds and for people who love birds and the Duluth economy," said David Holmbeck, regional environmental assessment ecologist for the DNR in Grand Rapids. "Anything that might detract from that needs a very close look."

Rick Ball, executive director of the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which is heading the project, said several steps already are planned to soften its environmental impact.

Plans have been scaled back from 150 homes to 112. Each lot will be reviewed, and builders will be restricted on where each house can be built. As many trees will be left standing as possible, with structures fitting between trees rather than builders clear-cutting before construction. A 125-foot forested buffer will be kept along the development. Public trails will be maintained.

Nearly all wetlands will be retained, Ball said, and three ponds will be dug to keep water from running rapidly off the site, which can cause erosion.

Moreover, Ball said HRA will have a hand in how the houses take shape. HRA will work with builders and families to design homes so that large windows are facing south and north -- not east and west, which would be in the path of migrating birds.

Recent studies show that large windows may be responsible for nearly 1 billion bird deaths each year in the United States, a potentially bigger problem than roaming cats, pesticides and even radio towers.

"It seems like they are serious in trying to mitigate the effects on birds, and the window issue is a real big step," said Laura Erickson, a Duluth bird expert. "The whole Lakeside area is a really bad one for birds hitting windows."

Erickson suggests that homeowners in such migration routes use taught, fine mesh netting over large windows to keep birds from hitting glass.

Ball hopes the Planning Commission rules that the project won't have a major environmental impact and doesn't require a full-fledged environmental impact study. Such a study could delay the project for months.

Jim Mohn, the Duluth city planner who will advise whether the environmental worksheet is adequate, could not be reached for comment.

It's clear the loss of trees and construction of houses will harm birds, but there's no way to determine how much, said Maya Hamady, regional nongame species expert for the DNR in Grand Rapids.

"Any development at that site will have an impact. There's no way to determine what the cumulative impacts of development are. There's no way to quantify it," Hamady said. "People need housing, and birds need habitat. It's going to be up to your city to make a value decision on whether this is where you want to put that housing."

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