DAKOTA COUNTY - Dakota County taxpayers, anxious about the region's decade-long growth spurt, agreed in 2002 to spend $20 million to save some open space before the rapidly growing suburban center builds out.
Now the spending has started.
The county acquired its first conservation easement on a 9-acre parcel this summer as part of the Farmland and Natural Area Program. The partially wooded plot in Eagan will become part of Patrick Eagan Park.
Sixteen more land deals totaling about 2,100 acres -- roughly 600 acres of natural space and 1,500 acres of farmland -- are in the works. If these are completed, the county will spend about 30 percent of the $20 million voters approved in the farmland and open-space referendum.
The goal of the program is not simply to acquire land but to ensure that high-quality public and private open spaces remain undeveloped.
So far, Eagan is the big winner with three natural space projects -- two of which will become public lands. But the proposed land deals now span 11 cities and townships, and the county still is evaluating other projects. There also are three farmland projects in Sciota Township and three in Vermillion.
Eagan Mayor Pat Geagan said the referendum dollars are coming just in time to save disappearing pockets of natural space. Eagan's residential areas already are about 90 percent built out, Geagan said.
"If there was any one common thread that people were interested in seeing it was green space in the city," Geagan said. "That gets difficult because it's so built out, and the price is dear. This opportunity isn't going to be here much longer. Everyone recognized that." Program manager Al Singer said now that the project is rolling, organizers have quelled concerns about the quality and location of lands available.
"There was skepticism that there was not a lot of natural areas left. The fact is there are," Singer said.
To stretch its referendum money, the county is partnering with cities and the state, and it's pursuing federal dollars. While the county is spending nearly one-third of the referendum dollars, Singer said it actually was preserving $19 million worth of open space. Five of seven natural area projects are partnerships with other government agencies, so the land will become be publicly owned.
That's what happened with the first 9-acre parcel.
"People realize the city couldn't do it alone," Mayor Geagan said. "The only way we could do it was a cooperative effort."
The city of Eagan purchased the partially wooded property that neighbors Patrick Eagan Park for $900,000 with the help of the county referendum and state funds. Eagan paid $180,000 while the county chipped in $270,000. The Department of Natural Resources contributed $450,000 through two programs.
"The first acquisition was in a part of the county that people didn't even think was in the running for a preservation program since Eagan is such a highly developed area," said Nancy Schouweiler, chairwoman of the county Board of Commissioners. "A lot of people may not be aware of the oasis not far from their own neighborhood."Although the program's goal isn't to increase public land holdings, Schouweiler said she's happy that the public will have access to several of the preserved natural spaces.
"We are using so much of the taxpayers' money, that's an important aspect," Schouweiler said. The county also is working to help the city and the Caponi Art Park Board acquire the 60 combined acres of land that make up and surround Caponi Art Park.
Singer said tying referendum easements to already existing public preserves also is better from an ecological standpoint.
"We are looking for high-quality, large parcels preferably connected to existing parks or wildlife management areas," Singer said. "It's better ecologically to have pieces that are connected as opposed to small, isolated parcels."