Larry Koch, a member of the Riley Purgatory Creek Watershed District’s board of managers, is so unhappy with his agency’s proposed purchase of 28 acres in Eden Prairie that he’s suing the district and its staff administrator.
A consistent “no” in the board’s 4-1 votes to purchase the Spring Road properties previously OK’d for high-end homes, Koch has filed a civil suit against the watershed district, contending it exceeded its authority in deciding Nov. 16 to buy the property for $5.775 million. The lawsuit also names the district’s administrator, Terry Jeffery, as a defendant.
“I view it as egregious,” Koch said this week about the board’s decision to purchase the Spring Road properties.
“Equally important, we deal with water, water, water,” he added. “In my view, we’re going to spend at least $6 million on prairie land that has limited water attributes” while funding for other district projects is delayed.
The lawsuit, he said, “is not about buying prairie land. Protecting that land is not a bad idea. But we’re not the vehicle designed to do that. I believe we should stay in our lane.”
John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), has worked with watershed districts and watershed management organizations throughout the state for the past 16 years. He said he can’t recall another instance where a watershed district board member has sued the agency he or she serves.
“I think this is a rare case,” he said.
Paul Reuvers, an attorney representing the watershed district and Jeffery, said he expects the district to prevail in court.
“We think it’s an extremely important project to preserve this property for posterity,” he said. “We believe we’ve dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t.’”
A court hearing on the lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.
Property with a history
The 28-acre property in question, located in southern Eden Prairie near Riley Creek and the historic Fredrick-Miller Spring, is no stranger to controversy.
The Eden Prairie City Council and the watershed district in 2021 approved the construction of 50 single-family homes on the sloping property, a project called Noble Hill. Multiple lawsuits were subsequently filed by a citizens group, Friends of Spring Valley, that opposed the housing development on environmental grounds. Meanwhile, the housing project stalled.
However, in a turn of events, the watershed district began exploring the purchase and conservation of the 28 acres in March 2023, putting the matter on its meeting agendas 18 times – with many of those meetings occurring in closed session – as well as appraising and evaluating the property.
On Nov. 16, following a public hearing, the board of managers voted 4-1 to amend the district’s 10-year water management plan to reflect the property acquisition and proceed with the purchase on the grounds that doing so would protect nearby waters and wildlife habitat. It also defended the purchase by saying the land would be conserved, restored to prairie and savannah, and fill the missing link in a contiguous public corridor along Riley Creek from Lake Riley to the Minnesota River.
The acquisition has drawn support from the Friends of Spring Valley, the City of Eden Prairie, and Hennepin County, among others.
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. 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 purchase of the property, or they remain undecided.
As a result, the watershed district is taking on long-term debt to finance the purchase, and raising its property tax levy starting in 2024 to cover annual debt costs.
Lawsuit delays purchase
Koch said he would have been fine with the land purchase if it had been done with funding from other agencies, but that he objects to having district taxpayers shoulder nearly all of the purchase.
As to the protection of nearby waters, he said the rules and regulations the district put in place for the housing development would have readily accomplished that aim.
Asked why he thinks other board members don’t share his position, Koch said, “In my view, I am persona non grata. I think people believe I’m trying to be obstructive.”
He said that, in his opinion, he is simply sticking to his longtime position of adhering to state law, utilizing best management practices, and being smart with taxpayer dollars.
As a result of the lawsuit, the closing on the property purchase has been delayed 60 days.
Koch is one of five citizen members of the watershed district’s board of managers appointed by county commissioners. Koch, a Chanhassen resident, is Carver County’s appointee to the board. His current three-year term expires in July 2024, according to the district.
The district includes portions of Eden Prairie, Bloomington, Chanhassen, Chaska, Minnetonka, Deephaven, and Shorewood that drain to RIley, Purgatory, and Bluff creeks.
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