Two court foes this week moved closer to being allies on an Eden Prairie land-preservation issue.
The board of managers for the Riley Purgatory Bluff Creek Watershed District on Wednesday, Oct. 4, voted to take additional steps to acquire and protect from development the 28 acres along Spring Road, near Fredrick-Miller Spring, that were approved in 2021 for a 50-home project called Noble Hill.
That would put them on the same side as a citizens group named Spring Valley Friends, which wants the land preserved as open space and has sued the watershed district over its earlier Noble Hill approvals.
“There is a lot of irony in that,” District Administrator Terry Jeffery acknowledged about the turnaround.
“And, as of right now, there is still a suit against us,” he added, noting it’s the watershed district’s hope that Spring Valley Friends will withdraw its latest legal action, knowing the land will be protected from future development.
Morgan Jacobs, president of Spring Valley Friends, told the managers Wednesday that his organization supports the watershed district’s purchase of the property. “This would be the result of a lot of people who have conservation in their hearts,” he commented following the meeting.
Significant steps remain before the land is purchased for an agreed-upon price of $5.775 million.
At a meeting on Nov. 16, the watershed district will take public comment on a proposed change to its management plan, which aims to re-order its list of projects to include the Noble Hill purchase. People can also submit written comments to the district prior to the meeting, said Jeffery.
Between now and Nov. 16, he said, the district will finalize the project’s financing plan, complete an easement agreement with Minnesota Land Trust, and prepare that draft plan amendment for Nov. 16 consideration, plus all the normal steps associated with buying property.
After Nov. 16, there also is a period of time when either the buyer or seller can withdraw from the agreement without penalty, he said.
“Realistically, we’re looking at December or January for any type of closing,” said Jeffery.
There is also a divided board of managers. Wednesday’s 4-1 decision to continue moving ahead had Manager Larry Koch, a Chanhassen resident appointed to the board by Carver County, voting “no.” Voting to move forward were managers David Ziegler, Tom Duevel, Jill Crafton, and Dorothy Pedersen.
Koch urged more deliberation on the matter. He said the purchase has a high cost and little benefit for the watershed district. “This blows the budget,” he commented at Wednesday’s meeting.
District staff have determined that, without the project, the watershed district’s 2024 property tax levy will need to increase by 4% to cover its proposed budget. With the project and its debt service added, the tax levy increase required is 6%, to a total of $4 million. That would be spread across taxable property within the district, which includes portions of Eden Prairie, Bloomington, Chanhassen, Chaska, Minnetonka, Deephaven, and Shorewood.
With the project, the tax levy in 2025 will increase another 8% over 2024. Without the project, that 2025 increase would be 5%, said Jeffery.
Koch argued Wednesday that the district permit issued for Noble Hill already addresses water-quality issues associated with development, making acquisition unnecessary. But, proponents of the purchase and conservation say there are other benefits. Among them are:
- Leaving soils susceptible to erosion undisturbed;
- Securing one of the last parcels needed to preserve a contiguous public corridor along Riley Creek from Lake Riley to the Minnesota River;
- Preserving habitat for kitten-tails, an endangered prairie plant, and the rusty patched bumble bee;
- Creating a “real life lab,” Jeffery said, that will help the district study and measure how restoration of prairie or woodland and soils affects water quality. (Hennepin County has pledged expertise and funding to help restore the property to its original savannah and prairie condition.);
- Create an opportunity for public education and outreach;
- And, possible use of the existing homestead for district offices.
The district also wants to find funding partners. Some money has been secured, said Jeffery. He and the Minnesota Land Trust on Thursday presented the acquisition proposal to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Jeffery said the state body voted 9-0 to authorize the expenditure of $500,000 to create a conservation easement on the property, the details of which need to be worked out. Money would come from the Clean Water and Land Legacy Act. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was established by the Minnesota Legislature with the responsibility of providing annual funding recommendations.
“We are hoping that we can find (other) partners, whether it be the Mdewakanton Sioux Community or other organizations that may wish to partner to tell other stories that are also germane to that area in addition to water resource protection,” Jeffery said.
If the district doesn’t find additional funding partners?
“I don’t know that it would be a deal-killer, but it would need to go back to the managers for consideration,” responded Jeffery. “I think there would be some consternation because it is a large financial commitment.”
The property is adjacent to the City of Eden Prairie’s 60-acre Prairie Bluff Conservation Area on the river valley bluffs and the historic Fredrick-Miller Spring, which is also on city-owned land.
The John and Carol Standal family are the longtime owners of the property, which served as both a residence and tree farm. A company called Trek Real Estate & Development, Inc. holds the purchase rights and has been working with the watershed district on an agreement to assign those rights to the district.
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