A land-use decision on 30 acres that include a portion of a heron nesting site has been delayed.
The Olmsted County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to wait until May 18 to determine whether the land owned by Steve Connelly could be developed into 10 suburban lots.
“It feels like there are several moving parts here,” commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said in suggesting the delay.
Among efforts is a community request to seek an environmental assessment.
Leal Segura, a neighbor to the property facing development, said a petition with 1,142 signatures was submitted to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, with nearly 700 Olmsted County residents signing the document.
She added that community members are researching options to obtain a portion of the land to preserve the nesting site.
“We’re still sort of figuring that out,” she told commissioners during Tuesday’s public hearing.
The county board’s delay likely won’t provide enough time for the environmental assessment or for the neighbors to secure a preservation plan, since a decision must be made by June 17, according to Senior Assistant County Attorney Tom Canan.
Without action, the proposed general development plan would automatically be approved.
Commissioners Matt Flynn and Gregg Wright opposed delaying the county decision Tuesday.
“It appears to me we are trying to make some other government agency decide something we don’t want to decide,” Flynn said.
The county commissioners, however, are only the latest step in the process that has already included five public hearings.
If the commissioners authorize plans to move forward, the proposed development will still face Rochester Township Board reviews and hearings, and the county board will review the final plat for the project.
Additionally, a court-issued restraining order is in place to prohibit removing any tree within 1,000 feet of a heron nest.
Jeff Broberg, a Rochester-area geologist and consultant hired by developers, told commissioners Tuesday the concerns about the herons followed legal debate over unrelated property concerns.
He added that recent messages about the project have contained incorrect information.
He said he became involved in the project to reduce its environmental impact, which he said would be more severe if Rochester’s plans for urban development eventually reached the site.
“A low-impact suburban development is the best solution for this property,” he said, pointing out that no plans exist to develop wetlands and that other water-quality concerns are being addressed.
Citing decades of working with federal requirements involving development and migratory birds, he said plans to remove any trees that hold heron nests are being delayed until the nests are empty. He said that means when the birds return, they will set up home in nearby trees.
“These birds are resilient, and there are a lot of them,” he said, estimating that only a quarter of the nesting site sits on Connelly’s property and plans call for saving as many trees as possible.
The plan didn’t sway the 10 local residents who spoke against the project Tuesday.
“This is not about stopping development,” said local environmental consultant Brett Ostby. “This is about facilitating smart, sustainable development. It is not about property rights; it’s about protecting public assets and resources the community values.”
Others questioned whether the herons would return to other nearby trees if the site is developed, pointing to areas the birds have abandoned and uncertainty about their habits.
“This 30 acres is a very special area that deserves extra protection,” said Southwest Rochester resident Lance Vrieze.
Rochester Township board members Jamie Neison and Jeff Orth said they are watching the debate unfold and voiced plans to balance the needs of the township if the project moves forward.
“We’re at the very early stages of this,” Orth said.