If James McCarthy had lived a little longer, he might have finished selling the scruffy fields and mature woods that once belonged to his Irish-immigrant ancestors to a Lakeville developer.
But in 2002, months before McCarthy was supposed to close on those 60 acres, the Eagan trucker died of natural causes in a Montana hotel room.
Looming questions over the contract McCarthy signed have plunged his younger brother, Patrick -- a working farmer, co-owner of the land and the executor of his brother's estate -- into a contentious court battle to guard the farm that has been in his family for about 160 years.
Patrick McCarthy, 69, declined to comment for this story, but local green-space advocates say he's growing weary of the costly and enduring litigation. A recent judge's decision will keep the court fight simmering for several more months.
Eagan preservationists known as Friends of the Eagan Core Greenway hope the city and county will eventually acquire the land and permanently preserve it as open space.
"It's his family's legacy," said member John Ward. "Pat's a survivor, and this is important to him."
But a lawyer for Tollefson Development rejects portraying Patrick McCarthy as the little guy up against "the man." Attorney Chad Lemmons points out that the farmer could sell his family's land, which totals about 130 acres, for several million dollars.
"To say it's a big, bad developer against the small guy is not quite the case," Lemmons said. "If Pat didn't want to sell it, I understand, but Jim had the right to sell his property, and that's what he did."
For good reason, developers have long desired the parcel west of Lexington Avenue and north of Wescott Road. It's right in the middle of the highly built-out suburb, where open land is precious.
McCarthy has told others the land was passed down to him by his great-grandfather, who bought it from Minnesota's first governor, Henry Sibley. McCarthy has already begrudgingly parted with the portion that once housed his family's original homestead, Ward said. Through eminent domain, Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley-schools bought the parcel in 1992 to make way for Glacier Hills Elementary.
Eagan preservationists call the McCarthy acreage essential to their envisioned greenway, a natural corridor connecting to Lebanon Hills Regional Park. The McCarthy farm is home to lakes, fields and oak and birch trees, offering a welcoming habitat for a mix of wildlife, Ward said. Preservationists had the McCarthy farm in mind when they set out to preserve a number of nearby properties, such as the Caponi Art Park.
Dakota County has also closely eyed the land. Last year, Patrick McCarthy donated a conservation easement covering 34 of the contested 60 acres to the county in order to protect it from development. The county board is also considering purchasing another easement on the McCarthy property through its farmland preservation program.
"However, we haven't done anything with this project as a result of the court litigation," said Al Singer, who manages the county's Farmland and Natural Spaces Protection Program.
Court records spell out a three-year scuffle between Tollefson and the McCarthy men.
The brothers had equally owned the entire 130 acres. In 2000, James McCarthy signed an agreement to carve out his share and sell 60 acres to Tollefson.
But Patrick McCarthy's attorney, Rollin Crawford, said James McCarthy thought his signature was powerless without his brother's. "These guys are not unintelligent; they are just not educated about real estate," Crawford said of the brothers.
But the Tollefson attorney denies that the developers misled James McCarthy into signing the papers. McCarthy had negotiated with Tollefson for several months before agreeing to sell the property, Lemmons said. "He wasn't a babe in the woods," Lemmons said of McCarthy, who ran a small trucking line.
After Tollefson sued James McCarthy over the land, the two parties reached a settlement agreement in April 2002 to avoid trial: McCarthy would sell the 60 acres for $4.2 million.
Two months later, McCarthy was dead.
The courts recently concluded that the settlement agreement was worthless because both parties mistakenly defined the property's borders. Last month, a judge agreed to examine the dispute from square one -- whether Tollefson can pursue its original agreement with James McCarthy. Under that contract, the developer could buy the land for a bargain: $2.2 million.
A new trial has been tentatively set for June.