A judge has temporarily stopped construction this week at a subdivision on the late Doug Dayton’s former land in Orono.
A group of neighbors is suing the developer, arguing that the development would destroy remnants of the historic Big Woods forest on Dayton’s former property next to Mooney Lake. On Monday, Hennepin County District Judge Mary Vasaly granted a temporary injunction, allowing the suit to move forward and each side to make its case.
“It’s a huge victory,” said the neighbors’ attorney, Randy Hopper.
But it’s too late to stop work from beginning on developer George Stickney’s Mooney Lake Preserve project. Construction crews started cutting down some trees last Friday. In court documents, Stickney, his company and attorney Curtis Smith, who didn’t return messages seeking comment, argue that the subdivision complies with city and watershed rules, followed approval and review processes, and is part of the property owner’s right to develop.
The temporary injunction will prevent grading, tree removal, tree planting and other work this construction season, increasing costs and delaying the sales of lots, Stickney’s court filing said.
But the 13 neighbors who sued Stickney, his company, BPS Properties, along with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and the city — both of which had to approve permits and plans — last month were glad to halt construction.
“I’m happy at least we can stop it for now,” said neighbor Anne Healy. “He’s just destroying the forest.”
She and her neighbors sued, saying the subdivision of the prairie grasslands and dense woods violates the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act because it would cause “significant environmental degradation and destroy natural ecosystems” of the Big Woods forest. Hopper, their attorney, said then that the subdivision was a “slap in the face” to Dayton and his land preservation work.
In court documents, Stickney’s attorney, Curtis Smith, argued that neighbors sat “on their hands for many months while the project wove its way through the governmental approval process” and sued “at the 11th hour.”
Doug Dayton, the grandson of Dayton’s department store founder George D. Dayton and the company executive credited with launching Target, bought the more than 90-acre property he named Meadowood some 50 years ago and spent years restoring the fields and building trails in the 16-acre dense forest of maple, oak and elm trees. Dayton, the uncle of Gov. Mark Dayton, died in 2013.
The Orono City Council unanimously approved plans after Stickney bought the land for $5.3 million from Dayton’s widow, Wendy Dayton, in September. According to court documents, she tried for 17 months to sell the property to someone who would preserve it, but was unable to do so.
Stickney, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet and a principal with BPS, got approval to build 11 lots, seven on the lakeshore and four in or near the woods, with an average lot size of 3.18 acres. In plans, 98 trees that are more than 6 inches in diameter will be removed out of 1,430 trees in the Big Woods area.
City leaders have said that Stickney could have gotten at least 30 homes on the property, one of Orono’s biggest remaining parcels of open land, and chose instead to preserve half of the land.
However, Hopper said the land isn’t a cornfield to be developed, but different ecosystems that should have been preserved.
“The law says preserving the environment is paramount,” he said. “Preserve … first, and talk later.”