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Controversial development to break ground

By Karen Colbenson

The Post-Bulletin

Despite several years of opposition from a citizen’s group, groundbreaking for a new housing development will begin next week on land west of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

The city of Austin annexed the 55 acres of land from Lansing Township in 2006.

Nature’s Ridge Properties of Austin recently purchased 25 acres with the intent of future housing, with an option to purchase the remaining 30 acres for future use.

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One of the developers, Paul Sween, said the company hopes to put $14 million worth of housing there in the next three to four years using local builders, electricians, plumbers, and heating and air conditioning companies.

Phase One of the development would include 30 single-family lots and 17 villa lots. Lot sizes range from one-third to one-half an acre and cost around $40,000 each. The second phase would add 42 more single-family lots. Housing prices are expected to be $229,000 to $350,000. An estimated $1.3 million of infrastructure is slated for completion by the end of summer, at which point homes will start to be built.

According to Sween, nearly half the lots are already committed.

In 2000, Austin residents voted 6,914 to 3,135 to oppose the annexation of the same land for a different housing development that called for 130 homes. A citizens group collected signatures for a referendum. Some neighbors said they didn’t think Austin needed more new homes, and were concerned that a large development near the nature center could harm the wildlife habitat.

A member of Friend of the Nature Center, Dick Dixson, said he had mixed emotions about the development going up.

"There really is nothing we can do about it," Dixson said. "The first time around (in 2000) I was vehemently opposed to it. We just wanted to acquire it. We saw it as an extension of the Nature Center."

In February,members of a concerned citizens group attended the monthly Park and Recreation Board meeting to seek help in purchasing the land from Nature’s Ridge Properties. One member of the group, Valeria Maloney, said she grew up exploring the land around the nature center.

"As time goes on, our children will have less of a chance to experience the wilderness as these developments keep going up," Maloney said.

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Dixson said the group just couldn’t raise $500,000 in time.

"We just had to let it go," said Dixson.

Co-developer Lee Hansen said that the group had been given an opportunity to purchase the land and did not come up with the funds to do it.

"So we’re going to move ahead and develop it now," he said.

Sween said that the development would expand the tax base by $15 million, which helps pay for the Nature Center.

"All of us as owners of property in the city pay taxes so the city can take care of us, including the park department that takes care of the Nature Center," he said.

"Everything is fine," Sween said. "Everything is moving forward. We gave them the opportunity, and there was just not that interest in it. The Friends of the Nature Center want to go north and east, they don’t want to go west. They had an opportunity, and it just couldn’t happen."

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