Friends of Patrick Eagan Park


Minneapolis Star Tribune
Friday, October 11, 2002

"Open Space: Worthy Initiative in Dakota County"

There's more than one way to look at open-space issues in Dakota County, but the best might be to drive around awhile with Dave Stegmaier.

Stegmaier is backing the county's Nov. 5 referendum to preserve selected farmland and important natural areas. As the car rolls along, from a prairie restoration to a spectacular bit of Mississippi River bluff and beyond, it's clear that he knows and cares a lot about the places this initiative could protect (including, possibly, a skinny strip of the farm his grandfather left him along the Verillion River).

But, in a way, it's what Stegmaier says between these stops that's more telling. He grew up near Farmington, and though he's only 58 he can remember when the present intersection of Interstate Hwy. 494 and Cedar Av. was a four-way stop, and when he drove a team of horses over the grass and gravel tracks of Pilot Knob Road.

He can also show you where his father's farm gave way to townhouses, where a wetland was filled for townhouses, where an oak woodland was felled for townhouses. Few folks are better positioned to see what has been lost in the surging development of Dakota County, and that's an important perspective for voters to have.

They can't know, yet, exactly which pieces of land will be saved if Question 1 is approved on Nov. 5. But they needn't look far to see what will happen if it fails.

This referendum is simple and straightforward. It authorizes a bond sale to raise $20 million, which could be doubled by state, federal and private grants. The bonds would be repaid over 10 years through a property tax increase amounting to about $17 a year for the owner of a $175,000 home, the county median.

Property owners who want to sell conservation easements, giving up some of their development rights, would apply to a citizen advisory committee. The panel would evaluate applications against preservation criteria and prepare recommendations for the County Board, which would make the final decisions.

Open-space programs like this one are gaining in popularity across urbanizing American, but Minnesota has been slow to join the parade. If Dakota County voters approve this program, they can take pride in giving Minnesota the first of its kind.

A similar initiative was proposed in Washington County two years ago, but narrowly defeated after a campaign that was too brief and probably too soft-spoken. Also, in Washington County, voters knew where the easement purchases would be focused - in greenbelt areas previously designated by the County Board. In Dakota, the qualifying farmland is widely dispersed across the southern half of the county, and the eligible natural areas are everywhere.

That's probably one key reason that Question 1 has attracted such wide endorsement from county officeholders and candidates, and seems to have deep public support as well. Another is that the program was designed, with the help of surveys and public meetings, to give residents the kind of preservation they want, at a price they've said they're willing to pay.

There appears to be no organized opposition to the initiative. Its advocates occasionally hear individual concerns that it might limit farming opportunities or constrain homebuilding, or that it won't guarantee each and every taxpayer a bit of protected land nearby.

The truth is, such outcomes would require purchases on a scale far beyond what this effort can afford. A Dakota County taxpayer shouldn't expect a revolution in return for a buck and a half per month. On the other hand it's fair for that taxpayer to expect, driving around the county in the coming years, to encounter stretches of farmland that haven't gone to townhouses, forest remnants still unpaved, unsilted streams in their natural banks, resurrected prairie grassland - if Question 1 is approved on Nov. 5.

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