Our View: Many unanswered questions about Root River Park

Root river park JMS 0051.jpg
The current Root River Park southeast of Rochester is less than 100 acres and is essentially a hiking trail into and out of the Root River valley.

If you showed up late for the big meeting on Nov. 4 in Pleasant Grove, you didn't get in. Heck, even if you showed up on time, or even 15 minutes early, you still had to watch the proceedings from outside the packed Masonic Temple.

It was crazy. People were parking more than a block away. As fog descended on this tiny village east of Stewartville, the spouse of a Pleasant Grove Township board member actually donned a reflective vest and took on the role of traffic cop. She posted herself in the middle of a muddy, dimly-lit road that led back to Olmsted County Road 140 and waited for the exodus.

When someone has to direct traffic in Pleasant Grove, something big must be afoot.

And indeed it is. The possible expansion of the Root River Park from 90 acres to 955 acres has caused an uproar among landowners in this area, especially the 29 who fear their land will be included in a map showing the future park boundaries. Monday's meeting gave these landowners their first opportunity to publicly challenge the Olmsted County Board and county parks superintendent Tom Ryan, and they didn't hold back.

Currently, the Root River Park is a blink-and-you-missed-it place. Unlike Chester Woods Park and Oxbow Park, we'd guess that the vast majority of people in southeast Minnesota have never turned into its parking lot just east of County Road 1, and even fewer have walked the path that leads from that lot to the Root River. Essentially, that's the extent of the park right now — a hiking trail, a restroom at the parking lot, a few benches where hikers can catch their breath.


It's green space without camping. No fire pits. No playground or beach. Even the fishing is poor. But the scenery is spectacular, with the Root River gurgling beneath a towering rocky bluff. An hour spent gazing and listening in this area is good for the soul.

So the question is this: Should this small, serene park be transformed into a major recreation area, a regional destination for campers, mountain bikers, horseback riders — and perhaps anglers and hunters, too?

Ryan, in an interview before Monday's meeting, insisted nothing has been decided.

"We're in the discussion phase, trying to figure out what our community wants this park to be," he said. "We have to anticipate future needs. We manage today and plan for the future. That's our job."

He also disagreed with the landowners' claims they had been kept in the dark about the possible expansion of the park, saying, "It was a matter of public discussion for a year and a half at various park commission meetings."

But Ryan, who is refreshingly blunt for a public official, admitted those who've been notified that their property is under consideration for inclusion in an official map of the future park have every right to be concerned. "I'm a landowner, and yes, it would be unnerving — it would be unsettling as the devil if I got one of these letters. How could anybody not be concerned?"

That concern, in our view, is well-founded. Landowners whose property is included in an official map of an expanded Root River Park would essentially have their hands tied. They would need an extra level of county permission to improve or sell their property, and initiating such a process would open the door for the county to acquire their land.

So what we have is an age-old question: Should the desires of a few — in this case, 29 landowners — bow to the needs (or desires) of the many?


But before we even get to that question, there are others that must be answered. Among them are these:

• Is there a documented need for a third major park in Olmsted County, or are Oxbow and Chester Woods, along with Whitewater State Park and Forestville State Park, sufficient to satisfy the proposed population growth in the southeast region?

• How much money would be needed to pay landowners fair market value for what arguably is some of the most beautiful land in southeast Minnesota? Would Legacy Act dollars cover these costs, or would taxpayers pick up part of the tab? And what would be the cost of improving and staffing the new park?

• Could this be developed into a major recreational area without causing significant ecological damage?

We need clear answers to these questions before this idea gains further momentum. And we'd suggest all future public meetings take place in a much larger venue — preferably in Rochester.

Judging by what we witnessed last week in Pleasant Grove, the concerned parties won't mind driving a few extra miles to make their voices heard.

What To Read Next
Get Local