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
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