Longtime Edina resident Robert Tengdin's legal fight with the city over stormwater flooding his beloved tennis court has spilled into the community newspaper, with the two sides arguing their opposing views.
"I ask you, is this the Edina others envy and of which we have been so proud?" Tengdin, 91, wrote in an open letter in the Edina Sun Current last month, claiming the city essentially told him, "Go away, old man, you bother me!"
The area east of Highlands Lake that abuts Tengdin's tennis court and several neighbors' backyards has become a swamp in recent years, and it likely will stay that way if the city wins its appeal next spring. The area, known as the east basin, was dry for decades and considered part of Highlands Park, with the city laying wood chips and maintaining nature walking paths. But the city claims it always has been a wetland and this is its natural state.
"The city can't control the weather," City Manager Scott Neal wrote in a letter responding to Tengdin's full-page ad.
The back-and-forth is the latest development in a battle now spanning seven years. Tengdin first complained to the city in 2014 when historic flooding in Edina damaged 48 homes. Five years later, neither Tengdin's concerns nor the water had receded, so he gathered nearly 100 signatures on a petition asking the city to fix the flooding.
Jeff Doom, a financial planner who moved across the street from Tengdin in 2007, said he was walking his dog Ole in the area until it became impassable two years ago.
"Some parts of the trails were muddy, then all of a sudden the trail is 2 feet under water," Doom said. "That's the puzzling thing. How in the heck did this happen? If you say, 'Well, it's a wetland, and this is just part of being a wetland,' ... but we've had a drought. Shouldn't it go back after a drought to at least where it was a few years ago? What's different?"
City staff declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the pending litigation.
In court documents, Edina argues it is not responsible for rising groundwater levels that have increased by 10 feet over the past decade, and it has no statutory duty "to lower water levels in a wetland that are the clear result of climate change."
City 'got the bad property'
Bob Kojetin, Edina Park and Rec director from 1977 to 1994, said the basin was always part of Highlands Park, although in the 1950s the basin was designated for stormwater drainage. Still, he said it remained so dry the city built a staircase there connecting Skyline Drive to the park's warming house and playground. But he said controversy over water in Edina parks is inevitable, because land donated to the city for parks was wetland and low areas. "The park department got the bad property. The good property is where they put the buildings," he said.
The 88-year-old said if he were still in his role today, he would drain water into Highlands Lake. "It can be corrected, but it's going to cost a few dollars," Kojetin said.
Ken Powell, Wetland Conservation Act supervisor for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, said he's seen an increase in similar litigation from homeowners downstream, or where stormwater drains, who are "getting the brunt" from a combination of climate change and more drainage.
"I don't know what the solution is. There is not a mechanism to stop the drainage. These landowners downstream have no option but to pursue legal remedies," Powell said.
Tengdin's attorney, Tamara O'Neill Moreland, argues the flooding is not only caused by a changing climate, but an increase in impervious surfaces from redevelopment. In addition, she says the basin is part of the city's stormwater management system, so Edina has an obligation to maintain and repair it.
"You don't have the ability as a city to sit back and say, 'We're going to store our water on your private property because this is what happens when it rains a lot,' " she said.
Condition devalues house
Now that portion of the park is only accessible when water freezes over. Tengdin refers to it as the Okefenokee Swamp. "All it needs is an alligator," he said. "It's a wonderful place to be able to walk to but not to wade through."
Tengdin wants Edina to fix the flooding so residents can enjoy the area again. Such a remedy also would improve the value of his home where he raised three sons. A 2019 assessment from Tengdin's real estate agent listed a recommended selling price of $850,000, but ReMax estimates the house is devalued by $400,000 without the flooding being addressed.
In summer 2020, the tennis court he built in 1967 was full of standing water and mallard ducks, instead of the friends and neighbors who played on the court for decades. That year, Tengdin retired after 68 years with Allison-Williams Co. investment banking firm, and he filed his lawsuit.
The city sought to throw out the case, arguing it can't be sued for enacting its own policies. Hennepin County District Judge Jacqueline Regis denied the motion, but the city appealed days before an August trial was set to begin. A decision from the appellate court is likely next spring.
Regis wrote in her order that the east basin "was dry enough that Edina built and maintained a park and trail system" from the 1960s through at least the 1990s. "In recent years, however, the water level has noticeably risen," she stated, adding that "numerous trees in the east basin died due to flooding and the trails are, at least partly, submerged."
A $68,000 Barr Engineering study conducted by the city found flooding wasn't caused by actions or inaction of the city. Four possible solutions from the study were rejected by the city: building a floodwall, draining stormwater into Highlands Lake, more frequent maintenance of the pump at the lake and pumping the east basin.
In February, a year after Tengdin sued, the Edina City Council adopted a policy stating that the city only pumps out stormwater "when floodwater threatened a principle (habitable) structure."
Before that, City Engineer Chad Millner wrote that "flooded tennis courts are currently not a priority" in a series of 2019 e-mails, after Mayor James Hovland and council members toured Tengdin's property and he raised his concerns with city staff.
Attorney Paul Reuvers is defending Edina through the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. The city made a "judgment call," he said, and drew the line with limited resources. "The city can't pump [at] everyone's request," he said.
Tengdin thinks the city is trying to drag out litigation long enough that he dies before the issue is settled in court.
But when asked whether he's lived his whole life in Edina, Tengdin replied, "Not yet."
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751