HOUSTON — As opposition to a planned off-highway vehicle park in Houston mounts, the question of whether the city will be left with more than a half a million dollars in liability is becoming more urgent.

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told a crowd of more than 70 people Monday night they weren’t sure what would happen legally and financially if leaders of the Southeast Minnesota city of about 1,000 people were to back out of the plan to create the park.

DNR staff attended the Houston City Council meeting Monday night to brief the council and public on the project.


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Opposition to the project has grown as it enters its final phases. The public comment for a planned off-highway vehicle park south of Houston ended a year ago. However, opponents say they hadn’t heard about plans for the park until recently.

“I’ve been a resident of this town for only 10 years,” Mary Walker said to Joe Unger, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources off-highway vehicle planner, who presented the project update. “I’m out and about and listen, but I never heard anything.”

The project calls for 7.5 miles of roads and trails on the bluff, with a majority of the trails wide enough to accommodate a full-size truck. Planning began around 2008 through 2010. Federal grants and matching funds from the DNR have paid to acquire bluffland adjacent to South Park south of Houston. In 2013, the South Park land use plan was amended to allow motor vehicle traffic.

Opponents say the park would cause noise, hurt the fragile and diverse ecosystem of the bluff and bluff prairie and cause erosion of the sandy soil while offering little to no positive economic impact locally.

“This was handed to me,” Houston Mayor Dave Olson said of the park project after the meeting.

Olson is in his fifth year in office as mayor. He said the city is facing a tough choice that could result in it owing more than $500,000 in grants for acquiring land for the park but still being without the land.

“Last fall, (opponents) just came out of the woodwork,” he said.

Unger said he was unsure what would happen legally if the city backed out of the project. The land deeds stipulate the land reverts to state ownership if the park isn’t built. The grant language states the grant money should be paid back, he said.

Unger also "inherited" the project, he said.

“I wasn’t here back when this got started,” he said.

Holly Westby said she understands that officials leading the project now didn’t start it.

“The previous council didn’t do their job,” she said. “If this process had been open and honest, we would have heard about this.”

Unger said the DNR received 123 public comments during the public comment phase which closed last spring. About two-thirds of the comments were in support of the park, he said.

However, the majority of the crowd at the council meeting expressed opposition to the plan.

“We don’t want this,” said Frederick Besler. “Sell the land.”

“You left out the biggest part of this — the citizens,” said Jeanne Tippery.

Unger answered a few questions, but discussion was cut off so the council could do its regular business.

Unger said he would likely return next month to hold an open house presentation about the project and field questions.

However, he reiterated the DNR isn’t taking comments about the project and that its fate lies in the hands of city leadership.

“The DNR has gone through its process,” he said.