Friends of the Eagan Core Greenway

Ranch Waste Vexes Firm

Left over manure could affect pond

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Tuesday, May 25, 2004

by Laura Yuen

The vestiges of horse country are buried on the Diamond T Ranch.

Not memories. Manure.

Luxury-home builders Toll Brothers want to erect houses on the 37 acres where herds of horses once roamed. But, as the city of Eagan considers the proposal, it must confront years of stockpiled manure that apparently has degraded wetlands and killed trees.

No one can say for certain how much waste is present on the former horse-riding operation, among the last stables in the Twin Cities to rent horses until it closed last fall.

It appears manure was pushed over slopes and into wetlands with heavy machinery, according to a report Toll Brothers submitted to the city. The practices "degraded wetlands, destroyed trees and dramatically altered existing topography," the report said. In 1997, the ranch was found in violation of state guidelines on manure removal. That rough assessment is sending the city on a search for answers, especially on how the manure affects water quality of a nearby system of ponds.

"We really should have a handle on where this stuff is, how much there is and a plan of attack on what to do with it," said Eric Macbeth, the city's water resources coordinator. "I'm trying to sort this out, and I think other people are, too."

The project doesn't meet the threshold of a mandatory environmental assessment. But the city will insist that the environmental concerns be addressed if the property is developed, said Jon Hohenstein, the city's community development director.

Although most observers agree the mess should be removed, even that can be troublesome if a hard rain washes away the unearthed manure, Macbeth said.

At 6:30 tonight, the Eagan Planning Commission will consider recommending a zoning change from agricultural to a planned development for 37 single-family houses and 82 townhomes. Ultimately, the City Council could decide whether to rezone the property as soon as June 15.

Neighbors such as Sharon Holbeck say they'd welcome human neighbors over horses, and so far they've been pleased with the city's interest in reviewing the matter. Holbeck's house overlooks woods and a 3 1/2-acre pond that abuts the former ranch.

Holbeck says she hopes more runoff doesn't spill into neighboring ponds and wetlands -- and chase away the egrets, muskrats and frogs that live there. The network of wetlands ultimately feeds into the larger Jensen and Holland lakes in Lebanon Hills Regional Park.

A retired elementary school teacher, Holbeck has become a local environmental activist of sorts. Over the years, she has written the city to report the ranch's stockpiling, urged her neighbors to quit using lawn fertilizers that pollute waterways and helped hire an environmental cleanup firm to treat the blankets of weeds and lily pads choking the pond.

"Who could object to Monet's lilies?" Holbeck said of the pond lilies. "But in this case, it was too much of a good thing. It was infused by a collection of barnyard waste."

Macbeth agreed that the manure stockpiling most likely altered the wetlands. Like Holbeck, however, he says the city must now focus on the future. "What do we do from here?" he said. "Can we do anything historically? The answer is no."

But the ranch's possible skirting of environmental laws could help explain today's unusual situation. State records show that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a city worker inspected the ranch in April 1997. The MPCA ordered the ranch to clean up some of the manure, re-establish vegetation, devise a plan for storing the manure and control the contaminated runoff that flowed into the neighboring wetland.

Six months later, the MPCA visited the site again and noted "much improvement" but found still more work to be done, said agency spokesman Forrest Peterson. The state file has no further substantive follow-ups since 1997. Ted Thomas, the youngest son of ranch owner Carol Thomas, said he has frequently hauled manure off the property in the past several years.

"The issue is like, so long ago -- dead, is my point," said Ted Thomas of Maplewood. "It's been years and years since manure has been stored" on the site.

A manure removal and composting business, Heartland Gardens, confirmed that Diamond T regularly hauled its droppings to the Vermillion-based company.

Paul Griebel, the company's owner, said it sounded like neighbors were making a stink out of the dangers of nitrogen in horse manure. Many residents in pursuit of lush lawns fail to see the amount of chemicals in fertilizers they buy from the store, Griebel said.

"Horse manure -- it is a little appalling that it's become a lightning-rod issue," he said of the ranch site. "Yes, it does need to be cleaned up, but the amount of nitrogen that's remaining is quite likely to be less than what a block of homeowners put on their lawns."

After recently eyeing the land at Diamond T, Griebel figured there probably was only 30 to 40 cubic yards -- up to 2 inches deep -- of manure to be cleaned up. He said he has placed a bid with Toll Brothers to do the job. Neighbors fear his estimate comes up way short. Holbeck said she fears that several feet of manure will turn up once crews start digging.

John Helmer, a land acquisition manager with the builder, could not be reached Monday.

In addition, other residents are protesting the extension of Wellington Way, which is proposed to extend Johnny Cake Road to Pilot Knob Road. Others are troubled by the developer's proposal to remove 624 trees and replace them with smaller, younger ones, which is allowed by the city ordinance.

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