Dakota County wants to add land overlooking the Mississippi River near Hastings to a public park. Owners of the four parcels do not want to sell, and the issue has gone to court.

Dakota County is in District Court seeking approval to use eminent domain to buy four private properties overlooking the Mississippi River near Hastings.

The county wants to open the rare riverfront property to the public by making it part of Spring Lake Park Reserve. It says it must have control of the land by March 31 or risk losing $3 million in federal funds for trail construction.

Court proceedings are set to reconvene in Hastings on March 11.

Every seat in the courtroom was taken Feb. 19 when First District Judge Timothy McManus convened the case. Many of those attending wore large buttons opposing eminent domain — which is government purchase of land against the wishes of the landowners.

At issue is whether the county has a legitimate public purpose for the property it wants. If the judge rules in the county's favor, the next issue would be how much it must pay for the properties.

McManus is scheduled to tour and view the properties on Wednesday.

The landowners are farmers William and Juanita Sorg, whose property has been in the Sorg family for 118 years, Nancy Ann Drews and her family, who have owned the riverfront property for 50 years, and the Louis Gramsey Trust, which also has riverfront footage. The owners do not want to sell.

The county offered the Sorgs about $1.1 million for their land and $130,000 for a cabin; Drews and her family were offered $370,000, and the Louis Gramsey Trust $405,000.

"We are not willing sellers," Drews told the court. But, she said, her family has offered to sell the 1.8 acres needed from its 10.4-acre holdings for a regional trail.

Attorney Beverly Aho, who is representing Drews and her family, contends that the county has no pressing need for the land and has not made progress in the past decade on developing the land it already owns in Spring Lake Park.

"Rather, the land currently owned by Dakota County is neglected and/or has fallen into further disrepair," Aho said in a court filing. She charges further that the county does not have the necessary funds to develop the park.

William Sorg, a dairy farmer who owns 1,000 acres, would not lose his farm buildings or fields to the condemnation but stands to lose 77 acres of woodlands adjoining the farm. The woodlands border the river, and his family hunts and has a cabin there, Sorg said. He considers it irreplaceable.

"In our opinion, the county doesn't need the property," he said. "They have hundreds of acres that they have done nothing with. They really have no immediate plans for the use of our property, either."

Spring Lake Park was established as a regional park in 1974 and its boundaries were drawn in 1975 to encompass 1,100 acres, including five miles of Mississippi River shoreline, three miles upriver from Hastings. The county said that since 2003, it has acquired five properties totaling 150 acres for the park in direct purchases totaling $2.5 million.

In that time, the county says it has made $2 million to $2.5 million in improvements to the park.

Dakota County is seeking to use eminent domain to complete the purchases because the properties in question are in the middle of the park and bisect it, thwarting the development and use of the park as outlined in a master plan, county parks director Steve Sullivan told the judge. That plan was adopted by county commissioners in 2003.

The land is also needed to complete a segment of the 27-mile, paved Mississippi River Regional Trail between South St. Paul and Hastings, Sullivan said.

Sixteen miles of the trail are already built. Five to six miles are planned to cross Spring Lake Park over the properties being sought. The $3 million federal grant to build that segment requires that the county control the land for the trail by March 31, Sullivan said.

With bluffs, river shoreline, ravines, terraces, forests, two springs and archaeological remains, the area outlined as the park is "a special place within the metro area," Sullivan said.