When Anthony Caponi began crafting his art park in Eagan more than 30 years ago, he hoped even then to protect the sprawling space.
By 1987, the retired Macalester College art professor was working in earnest with the city to preserve the Caponi Art Park and Learning Center, the 60-acre estate he lined with stone pathways and sculptures.
It's been an on-and-off-again effort, but on Tuesday, the Eagan City Council took the final steps in its years-long bid to protect the property, unanimously approving six governmental agreements and conservation easements.
The agreements are part of a $5.4 million deal to transfer ownership from Caponi and his wife, Cheryl, to Eagan and the nonprofit Caponi Art Park Board that oversees the park.
"Hooray, we've finally done it," Caponi, 83, said. "We finally have both (government) approval and community support. We will look back on this and say that we've done something that couldn't be done."
The City Council will meet March 8 to finalize and approve maintenance and operating agreements between the city and Art Park Board. After that, the Caponis hope to close the deal on March 15.
"We are under the gun to get this thing done," said Council Member Peggy Carlson, who has spearheaded the project.
"I hope that someday, somebody 100 years from now drives down (the street) and says, 'Wow -- somebody had a great vision.' Because that's what this is."
Local preservationists and Dakota County also have worked to protect the land, partly because it lies in the middle of Eagan's Core Greenway, an expanse of forest and green space that stretches from Patrick Eagan Park to Lebanon Hills Regional Park.
The Caponi Art Park, located on both sides of Diffley Road, hosts an artist-in residence program at its learning center and runs a concert series at the Theater in the Woods outdoor stage. With the idea that the "art is the park," its rolling hills are filled with Caponi's sculptures and landscaped paths, or "linear drawings" as the artist calls them.
The park preservation deal is financed and managed by a host of nonprofits and government entities.
"There are lots of pots of taxpayer dollars involved in this and lots of partners," said Council Member Mike Maguire. "And this is as far as we've ever been in the process."
Eagan and Dakota County contributed $1.6 million for the acquisition, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave grants of $500,000, and the Caponis are donating land valued at more than $1.2 million.
To finance much of the rest, the Art Park Board must raise nearly $1.9 million -- as soon as possible, said board attorney and Eagan resident Steve Cox.
The City Council's final sign-offs come after its February approval to divide the 60 acres into four new parcels: two 20-acre lots and two 10-acre lots.
The approval also comes after the Trust for Public Land -- a national nonprofit organization that helps local groups purchase and conserve land -- signed a purchase agreement January.
The trust helped coordinate the transaction, raised grant money and ran an environmental assessment and survey on the land.
It will purchase 30 acres from the Caponis and have that property deeded to the city of Eagan.
The Art Park Board is purchasing the remaining 30 acres. That board will become a support organization of Eagan, with the mayor or a City Council member likely serving as a board director.
"But the entire 60 acres will always function as one park," said Gene VanOverbeke, Eagan's director of administrative services.
And the Caponis will continue to run it.
"This sets a good basis for us to go forward with everything we've wanted to continue to do with the park," Cheryl Caponi said.