Planners, landowners work their sides of Root River park issue
Landowners opposed to an official mapping process for the expansion of Olmsted County's Root River Park are hoping the Pleasant Grove Town Board will withdraw its endorsement of the mapping and the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners will, eventually, vote the process down.
Two of the three Pleasant Grove board members have indicated they plan to vote to withdraw their board's endorsement, said Eric Reiland, a member of the Pleasant Grove Concerned Citizens for Landowner Rights.
Reiland and 28 other landowners are worried they will be forced to sell their properties to the county or have them taken by eminent domain. Their 47 parcels are included on a proposed map for a 900-acre Root River Regional Park.
Also, the owners oppose having their properties included on the official park map because they then would be subject to county intervention should they decide to make improvements upon their land or sell it.
Speaking during the public comment period of the Olmsted County board's Nov. 19 meeting, Reiland asked the commissioners whether they would honor a Pleasant Grove Town Board decision and halt the county Parks Department's plans to create an official map.
But Reiland received no such assurance from the board, and County Board Chairman Jim Bier said after the meeting the commissioners would have to look at the issue and come to their own conclusions about the proposed map.
Town board chair changes mind
In an interview Sunday, Pleasant Grove Town Board Chairman Reggie Oeltjen suggested the county board should back the town board's decision.
"I would think due to the situation that arose, that the county board might be wise to make the decision we're looking at doing," he said.
The situation he spoke of involves the 29 landowners and many others who showed up at the town board's Nov. 4 meeting, crowding into the meeting venue to oppose the official mapping and acquisition of private land to expand Root River Park.
Oeltjen and his fellow town board members initially supported the Olmsted County Parks Department's proposal, but his opinion has changed, he said.
"I think more details have come to light about how it works from the way I originally understood it," Oeltjen said.
Whether the county would force people to sell their land — and county officials have tried to reassure landowners it would not — the perception is clearly there, Oeltjen said.
"People are under the impression that it's a final map, and it's an almost done deal, and there's a lot of misconceptions and misinformation. So, at this point in time, I think the best thing to do is put it on the back burner and go for expanding the park without the official mapping process, which can be done as well," he said.
Landowners, county work on the issue
In the meantime, the landowners group is collecting signatures on a petition to ask the county to halt the mapping process. They hope to get at least half of the about 980 township residents to sign the petition, Reiland said.
The group also hired Larry Peterson, an attorney with the St. Paul firm Peterson, Logren & Kilbury, P.A. Peterson recently represented two landowners in a dispute with the city of Preston over a partially completed state recreational trail between Preston and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. In July, a district court judge ruled that the state Legislature never formerly authorized the trail and the landowners didn't have to sell their land.
Olmsted County Fourth District Commissioner Matt Flynn, who represents the Pleasant Grove area, said he plans to meet with the landowners next week to discuss the mapping process.
"I'm going to meet with some of them and throw some ideas out. Everybody's got great ideas, and we'll see if we can come up with something," he said.
Flynn has received flack from some of his constituents, who complained he wasn't keeping them informed about the official mapping issue. He said his relationship with them has improved, now that he's had a chance to talk with them.
"Nobody trusts government today, you know?" Flynn said. "And I don't blame them because we watch our federal people and there's shutdowns and party battles. And I understand that; that's just part of today's world ... so, let's get together and throw some things around, and go from there."
Planners and Public Works staff also are talking about ways to respond to the landowners' concerns. For example, they're looking into altering the map to show only parcels without houses on them, said Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department Director Phil Wheeler.
"Which would address the issue with the dwellings. That can be done with the official map process because we're creating non-buildable parcels, and we're not conflicting with the zoning ordinance anyway. And that probably will be a revision that the Public Works Department proposes," he said.
The area being considered for the expansion of Root River Park includes bluffs rising high above the river, and other features considered to be unique or environmentally sensitive, according to a state biological survey, said Sandi Goslee, a senior planner in the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department.
Both advocates and opponents of creating a regional park in the area have pointed out its special environmental features as reasons to support their arguments. Opponents have said inviting people to the area to hike and do other activities there would spoil the terrain.
Advocates, including county officials, say turning it into a regional park would preserve the land and protect the most environmentally sensitive areas.
"I think it's a good idea to have a third county park, especially a big one," said Wheeler said. "It certainly fits our demographic projections, and it's one of those things that attracts knowledge workers and makes our community more livable and vibrant."