Despite not securing many funding partners, the Riley Purgatory Bluff Creek Watershed District is moving ahead with the purchase of 28 acres of mostly open land along Spring Road in Eden Prairie.
Why it matters: Funding the purchase through its budget will add 4% to the watershed district’s tax levy for at least the next three years, but will end the years-long controversy about whether or not homes should be built on the sloping property, with soils susceptible to erosion, located near Riley Creek and historic Fredrick-Miller Spring.
The district’s board of managers voted 4-1 on Nov. 16 to proceed after getting largely positive public comments on the project, which would have the district preserve and protect the land from future development.
But, so far, they haven’t secured much funding help from other agencies or organizations to lower the price tag – $5.775 million, plus $100,000 for legal, closing, and consulting costs.
The district has been awarded $500,000 from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund to secure a permanent conservation easement for the property via the Minnesota Land Trust, and Hennepin County has committed to being a major financial and technical partner in restoring the property with prairie and woodlands, according to district staff. But, other government agencies and conservation groups have initially said no to funding the property purchase or remain undecided.
That means the watershed district will likely finance the purchase with the sale of bonds, repaid with property taxes collected over the next 20 years from Hennepin County and Carver County properties within district boundaries.
By funding the project through its budget, the watershed district’s levy for taxes payable in 2024 is expected to rise 8% instead of the 4% anticipated prior to the project, and the 4% bump to earlier levy estimates will continue in 2025 and 2026, according to district staff. This year’s tax levy was $3.8 million overall.
Also, as a result of the purchase, several capital projects in the district’s 10-year plan will be delayed at least a year, including projects to reduce the phosphorus in stormwater runoff to Red Rock Lake and Mitchell Lake in Eden Prairie.
The Spring Road Conservation Project, as the district calls it, would put into public ownership 28 acres that had been approved by the City of Eden Prairie for the construction of 50 single-family homes. The project was called Noble Hill, and it was opposed by a citizens group called Spring Valley Friends, which said the city and watershed district erred in issuing permits for the housing.
Subsequently, the watershed district was approached about purchasing the property, and has been considering that idea for most of 2023.
Spring Valley Friends still has a lawsuit against the district for its Noble Hill approval, but the watershed district expects the lawsuit to be withdrawn when the district closes on the land purchase.
Morgan Jacobs, a volunteer with and president of Spring Valley Friends, told the managers on Nov. 16 that the organization supports the district’s purchase and preservation of the property, calling it part of “a shift toward a better future.”
Larry Koch of the district’s board of managers was the lone “no” vote on the project. Koch said he likes the idea of preserving the property but that it should be funded by or taken on by other agencies.
“We’re in the water business. We are not in the general environment business,” he said. “It’s a great project, but not for us.”
Other managers had a different view.
“We’ve learned so much about ecosystems from some science findings and soil-health studies, and this is an opportunity to really do some good research, to do restoration, to allow for more groundwater recharge — there’s so many positives,” said Manager Jill Crafton. “And we can’t protect this if we don’t own it.”
Manager Dorothy Pedersen said she had received 71 positive and only one negative comment about the project, reinforcing her belief in its long-term benefits. She noted that, in addition to preserving and restoring the land, there’s potential for eventually establishing district offices and a learning center on the site.
“Over the long term, we will be able to get out of our $8,000-a-month rental that our district office is in, and that’s not including the maintenance cost that we have to pay to keep that space up,” said Pedersen. “I see this as a huge resource for educational opportunities, letting the public come and see exactly what you can do to preserve areas, to help water, to really conserve an ecologically precious area, when there’s only 1% of this left.
“I also see this as sort of a recreational thing, too, if we have it included in the City of Eden Prairie’s pathways,” she added. “So, in my mind, I find this to be kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our watershed district. Twenty years from now, if this goes through, we’ve passed it, we’ve made some changes, we’ve improved that space, this is really going to be an astounding area.”
District Administrator Terry Jeffery has said that the closing on the land purchase would be in December or January at the earliest.
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