Out at the Diamond T Riding Stable in Eagan, where new homes now encroach on two sides, owner Carol Thomas has had enough. Raising taxes to save open space, the idea behind a Nov. 5 referendum question in Dakota County, is a plan whose time has come, she said.
"Everybody is sort of up to us," said Thomas, who saddles more than 100 horses a day at the 30-year-old stables, which also abut a regional park. "The more the city stretches out, the fewer and fewer places there are to ride."
But Thomas is not predicting victory just yet: The preservation plan, which would spend $20 million over 10 years to buy and preserve as much as 10,000 acres of farmland and natural areas, carries a price. Owners of a median-valued home, now priced at $176,500, would face a $17 annual property tax increase. Those with $300,000 homes would pay nearly $30 more each year.
Harland Hiemstra, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, said the annual tax increase amounts to "the price of a pizza" for a typical taxpayer. More importantly, according to supporters, the proposal to sell $20 million in bonds faces no organized opposition with just three weeks until voters go to the polls. But come election day, the effort will have to overcome strong no-new-tax sentiments in Dakota County's congested suburbs and rural landscape. A similar plan -- the first such attempt in Minnesota -- failed in Washington County two years ago, largely because of opposition to its cost.
And it must also overcome skeptics like Patrice Bataglia, a Dakota County commissioner who represents key areas in Mendota Heights and Eagan. She contends that organizers are exaggerating the number of voters who have told pollsters they favor the program. Bataglia, who said she is neither advocating for or against the proposal, was on the losing end of a January vote by the county to adopt the plan.
The bonding plan's chances will hinge on how many taxpayers agree with Steve Kreitz, a Rosemount investment adviser who is backing the plan. Kreitz also supports Tim Pawlenty, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and House majority leader from Eagan who has pledged no new taxes if elected.
"I will swallow hard and take the tax increase gladly," said Kreitz, who last week spent an evening at a Rosemount VFW hall helping stuff envelopes for the campaign. "It's exceedingly important to get over this idea of no new taxes on anything.
"People have got to realize -- Republicans, Democrats, Greens or whatever -- the environment affects us all," he said. He added, however, that he doubted that his mother, Alice Kreitz, a recent mayoral candidate in Eagan, would ever support the preservation plan. "I'm not as far right as my mom," he added.
Dakota County officials stress that the program will be voluntary for landowners, but have identified 78,000 acres of privately owned farmland and natural areas as a high priority for preservation, including 42,000 of the county's 220,000 acres of farmland.
In most cases, the county would acquire property outright or obtain a permanent easement that, while not changing ownership of the land, would restrict its use. Priority will be given to land that, among other things, is adjacent to other protected property, is threatened by impending development or has "significant ecological qualities."
But the program has several controversial features, including a provision that does not require a landowner to provide public access even after the property is enrolled in the program.
Kurt Chatfield, a Dakota County planner, said that providing public access to farmland is "not always possible because it's row crops and farmers are working that land." Voters, he said, will have to be convinced that it is important to preserve the land from development even if they are prevented from "physically walking around on the land."
Still, supporters won a key victory when the politically influential Dakota County Farm Bureau agreed not to oppose the bond issue. In Washington County, the Farm Bureau's opposition to a similar green space plan two years ago was widely seen as contributing to its defeat.
"We want to save farmland, but we're not sure this is the correct program we want to use," said Rozetta Hallcock, who presides over the 1,837-member Dakota County organization. Farm Bureau members, she said, were particularly opposed to the county's insistence that easements be permanent.
'We're so metro'
But Hallcock lives in rural Sciota Township -- the part of Dakota County farthest from the metro area -- and can see the steady march of urban development. "We get calls every week for our land," said Hallcock, whose family owns 145 acres in the township. "We're so metro now."
With Dakota County growing by 9,000 people a year, supporters hope to capitalize on concerns about the rush of building that seems to sprout new gas stations, strip shopping malls and grocery stores almost daily. "We've had, I think, a really good run the last week," Rick Hansen, the campaign's co-chairman, reported at a meeting last week. "We can feel that momentum building."
Getting conservative legislators and corporations in Dakota County to publicly support the preservation effort has not always been easy, said Michael Guest, the campaign's coordinator. Guest said the campaign, which has collected roughly $75,000, has been given donations by major home builders in the metro area who do not want their support to become public.
Supporters also said attempts to solicit donations from other major companies, including Eagan-based Northwest Airlines and West Group, have so far failed.
Campaign co-chairwoman Bev Topp said at least one key Republican state legislator from Dakota County has told Topp that she is privately supporting the plan but that she cannot go public for fear of upsetting her more conservative constituents during an election season.
Suburbs are key
The involvement of several environmental groups, which are often seen as politically liberal, has also made it harder to get conservative backing, campaign organizers said.
After the attorneys for some local firms learned that the Trust for Public Land was involved, said Kreitz, "the attorneys advised the corporations not to take sides." The trust, a national nonprofit environmental group, is helping with the campaign and has contributed $20,000 to its budget.
A private poll in March conducted for the trust showed that 63 percent of the respondents supported the plan and that 41 percent say they feel that Dakota County is developing too fast.
Guest predicted that the key to victory would be the large suburbs that dot the county's northern edge, closest to Minneapolis and St. Paul. And for now, the campaign's support in those suburbs is anecdotal.
"I've got a lot more to do," Paula O'Keefe, an organizer in Burnsville, confessed at a recent campaign meeting. But she added: "I have fliers at our friends' dental office."
-- Mike Kaszuba is at email@example.com.
For more information on Friends of Patrick Eagan Park visit www.friendsofpatrickeaganpark.org