Landowners fear losing their property to county park
Several landowners who recently were informed that their properties could someday become part of Olmsted County's Root River Park are considering a legal route to protect their land.
Three of the 29 landowners who received a letter from Olmsted County Parks Superintendent Tom Ryan in early October told the Post-Bulletin on Wednesday that they were surprised to hear their properties are included on a proposed official map of the future, greatly expanded Root River Regional Park and Recreation Area.
The proposed map shows the 90-acre park along the Root River in Pleasant Grove Township and 47 separate parcels totaling 571 acres of private land that the county might acquire in the future. Most of the land stretches to the south of the park and slightly westward. It includes cropland, woodland and homes.
State forest land with 293 acres is also shown on the proposed map because the county plans to talk to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources about making that land accessible to park users, said Ryan, who has talked with residents in the area. If the county does acquire all of the land on the proposed map, the Root River park would include 955 acres.
"I have probably had 15 conversations with citizens. And to the person, they couldn't have been more congenial and understanding. They've been very civil and very inquisitive, and their participation epitomizes good citizenship," he said.
However, Ryan said he cannot guarantee the county will never want to acquire their properties for the park. He said what happens with the park in the future is up to the community and its elected officials.
Some residents are miffed about the process and concerned about the future of their land.
"No one in the area knew that this was in the works for a long time; we just heard about it when we got the letter," said Eric Reiland, a nurse at Mayo Clinic who lives with his wife, Julie, on their 8-acre property.
Reiland, along with fellow area landowners Dave Lieder and Joe Chase, said that, before receiving Ryan's letter, which is dated Oct. 11, 2013, they knew nothing of the official mapping process. They also said they did not hear from their Olmsted County Board Commissioner Matt Flynn before the letter, and that they have since learned that the Pleasant Grove Town Board has discussed the matter more than once during its meetings.
Flynn said he did speak with Lieder, Chase and other landowners after they were notified about the official mapping process.
"The Pleasant Grove board proposed to the county that it would be a great idea to include these properties in the park, but none of them are affected by this mapping," said Chase, a manager at AT&T in Rochester, who owns about 60 acres in the area. He said all but about 15 acres of his land are included on the proposed official map.
After discussing the issue with lawyers and land rights groups, Chase, Reiland and Lieder said they and several other landowners are considering hiring an attorney.
"We feel exposed. We feel vulnerable, and we're not being given information. And our elected officials are not telling us what we need to know," Chase said.
Lieder, who is a pastor at Faith United Methodist Church in Spring Valley and lives on his 15-acre property in the area, said that county officials are telling him and other landowners not to worry — that the map doesn't mean their property will be taken.
Map for future
Reiland recently emailed County Board Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden with his concerns. He said Kiscaden assured him the county has no intention of forcing people to sell their properties or taking their land. But Reiland and Lieder say they are not feeling reassured.
"They say this official map thing is benign, but every lawyer we've talked to says that once your land is on the map, it's over. Then, it's just a matter of, 'what are your terms of surrender?'" Lieder said.
Lieder, Reiland and Chase all said they believe they could lose their land to the park some day.
Chase fought back tears as he spoke about what his property means to him. It was settled by his great-great-grandfather 150 years ago and has remained in his family's possession to this day.
"My children live in a house with floorboards cut by their great-great-grandfather," he said. "I am the steward of my family's identity until my children can take over."
"It's not just land we're talking about," Lieder said. "It's lives, dreams, history. It's a blessing for us to be there."
Ryan said he has spoken with Chase and many other concerned landowners, and he thinks the conversations have been useful for all parties.
In the meantime, he said the county is being open and honest about the proposal, following a seven-step process to seek public input. The first steps were reviews of the proposal by the Olmsted County Park Commission and Pleasant Grove Town Board, followed by contacting the landowners via the letter.
The letter invites the owners to a public information meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ, where county staff will discuss the map proposal and long-term planning for the park and answer questions.
There also will be public hearings about the official map at upcoming Olmsted County Board meetings and Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, Ryan said, adding that the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department is shepherding the process for the county Parks Department.
Once expanded, Root River Park will become the county's third regional park. It is not considered a regional park today because of its small size and lack of recreational opportunities, Ryan said. To compare sizes, the county's regional Oxbow Park has 620 acres, and its regional Chester Woods Park has 1,300 acres, including a 115-acre lake.
The county acquired the 90 acres for Root River Park in 2007 from a private land owner. Today, it has a small parking lot, portable toilet, a sign kiosk, an 8-acre restored prairie and a 2-mile trail.
"And the layout of the property that we own is such that that's all we can do right now," Ryan said. "It has always been the intention of the county board, since the first purchase, to continue to try to build an area that can serve the needs of our citizens greater than we can now."
Some of the activities the county is considering for the park in the future are camping, mountain biking and horseback riding, Ryan said.
What: Public meeting with county officials and staff to discuss the proposed official map of Root River Regional Park and Recreation Area.
When: 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Where: Pleasant Grove Church of Christ, located one block north of Olmsted County Road 140 in Pleasant Grove.