East metro mayor blocks construction detour, sets off road fight

It was an ordinary summer morning one minute, and pandemonium the next, as car after…

It was an ordinary summer morning one minute, and pandemonium the next, as car after car suddenly appeared on a leafy street in Birchwood Village on White Bear Lake’s south shoreline.

“It came on like a house on fire,” Mayor Mary Wingfield said. “All of a sudden on May 9, we went from probably one car every minute to 30 cars every minute. We took it in the shorts.”

The river of vehicles was diverted from nearby County Road 12 that day, and every day since, for a major reconstruction that shut down 1.3 miles of the road from Century Avenue to Stillwater Boulevard. The work continues until November as Washington County repaves, adds signs and pedestrian crossings, installs a traffic signal at Wedgewood Drive, a multipurpose trail, and a culvert.

The official detour carries much of the road’s average daily traffic load of 12,000 cars to the south. But plenty of drivers found it more convenient to turn north through historic Birchwood Village, a community of fewer than 1,000 people that calls itself “Scenic, Tranquil and a Little Quirky.”

Faced with the prospect of months of unwanted traffic, Wingfield and the City Council took dramatic action: They shut down the east-west road drivers made into a detour.

It hasn’t gone well.

The Sheriff’s Office has been called to Birchwood Village at least 15 times in the past month as drivers confront the community’s blockade, a county spokesperson said. At least two people have been cited for driving around the “Road Closed” signs Wingfield had placed on roads leading into town.

Outsiders hoping to pass through have complained about overly officious Birchwood Village residents manning the signs as if they were checkpoints. One man was cited after he got out of his car and threw a sign into the ditch.

Wingfield said she doesn’t read social media but knows she’s being pilloried online. It hasn’t swayed her. “If you had seen the first few days — people speeding, passing on double yellow lines, semi trucks — it wasn’t a hard call at all,” she said.

County Project Manager Kevin Peterson said the county tried to give ample warning about the coming closure of County Road 12 — known locally as Wildwood Road — with a 2021 presentation to the Mahtomedi City Council and a pre-construction open house in April at Mahtomedi High School.

Mahtomedi officials, meanwhile, have urged Birchwood Village to reconsider. The road closure also has sent drivers into Mahtomedi neighborhoods looking for new routes, said City Council Member Lilly Melander. Some Mahtomedi residents, meanwhile, have been cut off from the best routes to school and other vital daily connections.

“I understand the concern about the safety of their residents. … I do think that by them closing the road — and the nature and fashion that they did that — it wasn’t neighborly,” Melander said.

She said she heard of a person who lives 100 yards outside of Birchwood Village getting blocked like everyone else.

Mahtomedi Mayor Judson Marshall said he opposes the road closure — he and others on the City Council have told Birchwood Village this directly — but he’s taking a slow approach.

“Fortunately, I think the mayor of Birchwood and I are patient people. We’re willing to work and do this in steps,” he said.

He said he plans to attend an emergency meeting of the Birchwood Village City Council on Monday; the council is expected to consider opening the community’s main east-west route to eastbound traffic, but not westbound, as a compromise.

County Commissioner Stan Karwoski met Thursday with Wingfield and Marshall to offer whatever support he could.

“We’re doing the road project, so we want to be a good partner,” he said. If it wasn’t for the culvert, he said, the county could have reduced the road to one lane rather than shut it down.

Wingfield said that with the approach of summer, the dangers to anyone walking to White Bear Lake will only grow if cars are allowed to dart through Birchwood Village. She wants to see a compromise.

“We can’t go on with the way it’s going on right now,” Wingfield said.

At the same time, she said, “Oh my God. Everyone is angry.”