Friends of the Eagan Core Greenway

Landowners Give Non-Profit a Chance to Buy Pilot Knob Parcel

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

by Brian Bonner

John N. Allen, who owns a piece of historic Pilot Knob hill in Mendota Heights, has decided to give conservationists a chance to buy his scenic 8.5-acre parcel.

If Allen can reach an agreement with the Minnesota office of the Trust for Public Land, he will abandon his controversial efforts to build on the site. Such a deal would end one of the metro area's most contentious development disputes in recent years.

"You can't spend your whole career trying to develop one property," Allen said. "All it is is an acknowledgement that it's time to move on."

Neither Allen nor Bob McGillivray, project manager of the Trust for Public Land in St. Paul, wanted to discuss the tentative purchase price reached recently between the two sides in a letter of intent.

But it is believed to be in the range of $1.2 million to $1.65 million.

In 2002, Allen said he had been offered $1.65 million by developer Ronald Clark for the mostly vacant property perched above the Mendota Bridge and overlooking the Minneapolis skyline, Fort Snelling and the Minnesota-Mississippi river valley.

But the deal with Clark, owner of Edina-based Minnstar Builders, was contingent on receiving city approval to build 157 townhomes on Allen's land and an adjacent 17-acre parcel owned by Acacia Park Cemetery, which takes up three-fourths of Pilot Knob's 100 or so acres.

That approval never came, after a coalition of preservationists, historians, bird-watchers, American Indians and the Metropolitan Airports Commission lobbied the City Council to block the proposed development.

Allen said he and land partner Joel Buttenhoff are willing to sell now for "significantly less than we view the site as being worth."

But his assessment may depend on how one defines "significantly less."

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit organization that raises money to buy properties. So far, the organization has "conserved over 2 million acres of land worth $4 billion," McGillivray said. Often, the organization transfers ownership to a public agency after the purchase.

To purchase the Pilot Knob property, McGillivray said, the organization has applied for several grants, including one from the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Areas Program.

Al Singer, manager of the county program, said $400,000 has been tentatively approved to help purchase the site. That amount is subject to approval from the Dakota County Board of Commissioners.

Singer also said the county is seeking an additional $800,000 in grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make the purchase.

Those two amounts suggest a minimum asking price of $1.2 million, although Singer also wouldn't specify the exact amount necessary.

"A lot has to come together in the next seven months," Singer said. "We're well short of the needed cash to make this happen."

Despite the challenges ahead, Singer and McGillivray expressed enthusiasm about the chance to preserve an important piece of Minnesota's heritage.

Pilot Knob, in addition to its splendid views, is rich with history.

It is the site of the signing of the 1851 Treaty of Mendota, which transferred millions of acres from Dakota Indians to white settlers. Historians also believe Indians are buried there. The hill was once proposed as a building site for the territorial Capitol.

All these factors helped spur opposition to any attempts to build an office or housing development there.

Moreover, since the hill is only a mile from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Metropolitan Airports Commission came out against housing there. And nature lovers said the relatively unspoiled area is home to wild turkeys, rare birds and other wildlife.

Rather than opposing the townhome proposal outright, the City Council ordered an extensive environmental study in 2003. Allen balked and took the city to court in 2004.

After losing two court rulings, Allen has a pending appeal before the Minnesota Supreme Court. His contention is that the city should have given him an up-or-down vote within 60 days of his application.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, Allen said he will give the Trust for Public Land an option to buy the property until Dec. 31.

But Allen acknowledged that the Mendota Heights City Council, led by Mayor John Huber, "effectively blackmailed us into working with the Trust for Public Land" by ordering the expensive environmental study, known as an environmental impact statement.

If the Trust for Public Land backs out of the deal, Allen said, he will renew his attempts to develop the land, which is zoned for housing.

McGillivray said he is optimistic about preserving the land for future generations. "I think it's a fabulous resource. It has great historical significance. It's an important place to many people."

On that point, Allen agrees.

"It's on the corner of hot and 100 percent," Allen said. "It's a terrific place, whether it's for an office, townhomes or an open green area."

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