Since 2002, when Dakota County voters approved $20 million to protect farmland and natural areas, the county has put 8,000 acres out of the reach of developers forever.

"It's been much more successful than we anticipated," said Dakota County Board Chairwoman Nancy Schouweiler. Someday, she said, the county will be credited with the same kind of foresight Minneapolis had when it set aside land for its famed park system.

There is a key difference, however: Unlike parkland in Minneapolis, the conservation land in Dakota County is not open for public use.

The county is buying easements on some beautiful land, but if people never get to see it, "you start to wonder if that is the best use of public dollars," said county Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord.

Dakota's is the largest county program of its kind in the state. Washington County has a similar, smaller program, and the Department of Natural Resources, watershed districts and other agencies regularly use conservation easements to keep land free of development. The easements protect land by placing legal restrictions on how it can be used while keeping the land in the hands of private owners.

The owners may not want to open the property to the public, and easements differ on whether they require it.

But in a sign that such easements are getting more scrutiny, the legislative auditor's office, which serves as a government watchdog, is studying the issue and plans to release a report next year.

Millions spent

Dakota's effort is widely considered a model program: The county leveraged the initial $20 million to bring in $58 million in grants and donations. Aiming to protect open land and make water cleaner, the county targeted properties that join lakes, rivers and streams. The county has 78 conservation easements so far.

The county pays the landowners for the easements, which restrict future use of the property to open space or farming and set requirements for how the owners must manage and maintain the land.

"By anybody's definition, the program has been a resounding success," said Susan Schmidt of the Trust for Public Land, a leading conservation group.

Not all easements are closed to the public.

Washington County, for instance, makes public access a requirement of the easements it buys on natural areas, said Jane Harper, the county's principal planner.

Some DNR easements allow hunters and fishermen to reach streams and go into forests. But the DNR does not make public access a requirement of conservation easements, said Kim Hennings, wildlife land acquisition coordinator.

Dakota has not required it, but Gaylord, for one, argues that public access to the natural areas -- although not to farms -- should be part of the negotiations with landowners.

Other benefits

Al Singer, land conservation manager for Dakota County, said the easements cost less than buying the land while keeping it on the tax rolls and in the hands of owners who will farm it or maintain it.

"The County Board has not taken the position that public access was required because of all of the other public benefits gained by protecting selected properties," Singer said.

"Landowners are often concerned about the amount and type of public use. There are significant privacy and liability issues. If any or too much public use is required, the landowner is often not interested in protecting the land."

Open land -- even if the public does not own it or have access to it -- is valuable to people, Singer said. "It's a quality-of-life thing. We believe that a place that is clean and green" is a place where people will want to live.

Also, what's on the land influences how clean lakes, rivers and streams are, Singer said.

By choosing to protect land located along water, the county doubles the easement benefit because landowners are required to plant buffers of vegetation that filter out dirt and pollutants, Singer said.

A private trail

Gaylord said she was particularly displeased that public access was not included in the recent $2.2 million purchase of an easement on 103 acres owned by the Lindberg family in Inver Grove Heights. The family has built a 3 1/2-mile trail there and limits its use to family members, adjoining homeowners and their guests.

The easement agreement with Lindberg does, however, include the possibility of limited public access to that trail in the future.

Lee Lindberg said the public is getting a number of benefits from the easement, even though it has not been turned into a public park.

"If you go to the corner of Barnes Avenue and Courthouse Boulevard, you will see the whole panorama of this green valley and you can enjoy the vista," Lindberg said.

"It's kind of like Mount Rushmore. We as taxpayers own it, but I can't go climb on it."

The conservation easement means the 41 homes Lindberg had once planned for the property will never be built. That will protect the quality of ground water, keep the land open for wildlife and preserve the pristine Marcott Lakes.

The family will continue to pay taxes on the property and incur the cost of managing it -- including keeping down buckthorn, Canadian thistles and exotic cattails, Lindberg said. He said the easement has 52 pages of requirements for how he must manage the property. The county will inspect it once a year.

It's a "happy-sad" feeling to have accepted the easement, Lindberg said. Sad, because "we can't build anymore. My son or daughter can't build on it.

"The happy part is that we now feel as a family that this land will be protected as we have had it."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287