Deep in the woods along the St. Croix River lies a long strip of private land that could well become one of the most significant public park acquisitions in Washington County in years.

The county last week made a purchase offer on a 15-acre property owned by the Aiple family on the north end of Stillwater. The much-coveted parcel fronts the river for two-thirds of a mile. The new Browns Creek State Trail borders the property on the other side.

County planner Jane Harper stood at the gate to the property one recent afternoon and spoke of its potential significance.

It could become a recreational mecca for people wanting to fish and boat. Shoreline would be protected, filtering harmful runoff from reaching the river. Walkers and bikers on the new trail could rest and explore and meditate in the trees.

"It's going to be a huge addition locally for recreation on the St. Croix River," she said. "The tourists will have something other than to come down to Stillwater to eat and go to antique stores. They'll have a natural component to their visit."

If owner Elayne Aiple agrees to the purchase offer, the sale would close next fall. The county hasn't disclosed terms of its offer, but as much as $1.925 million in voter-approved Land and Water Legacy funds will be spent. Another $1.25 million in state grants will become available in August, and the city of Stillwater will contribute at least $500,000 toward the purchase.

Under the proposed agreement, Stillwater will manage the land. Exactly how the land should be used hasn't been determined, but the city considers the pending acquisition an important piece of real estate near the Browns Creek trail, expected to attract 75,000 people a year.

"With a steep rock bluffline as a backdrop, and the long beautiful views of the St. Croix River Valley, the Aiple property has a phenomenal natural setting," said Bill Turnblad, Stillwater's community development director. "It also lies on the north end of downtown Stillwater and directly along the future alignment of the Brown's Creek State Trail. So, to be offered the opportunity to purchase it for public use and enjoyment is a rare opportunity that the city is excited to pursue."

Negotiations weren't easy

Harper, a county planner for 25 years, will retire in March. She's been the architect behind many open spaces agreements since 2000, but she said the Aiple land ranks "very high" because of the extensive frontage along the St. Croix River.

"One of our highest goals is to protect the St. Croix River," Commissioner Gary Kriesel said at a County Board meeting last week after Harper asked for a vote to move the deal along and got it. Kriesel said the Aiple property might be the largest private parcel of land bordering the U.S. Wild and Scenic river.

"I think the public access to the river really intrigued me," said Commissioner Lisa Weik.

In the 1880s, when Stillwater was a sawmill town, the Aiple property was inhabited by Northwestern Mill, employing 225 workers. A house the Aiples built on the land in the 1960s still stands.

The County Board's agreement with the city of Stillwater was one of two actions taken Tuesday to conserve open spaces and water quality, as voters had requested in a referendum in 2006. The board also approved an agreement with Stillwater Township to buy land owned by William McDonald on Silver Lake, some of which the township will maintain as a natural park.

Harper said many deals take years to close, others fall apart, but forging partnerships with cities and state agencies have allowed her to further stretch the county's Land and Water Legacy dollars.

Voters approved $20 million in 2006 to acquire land. If all current projects succeed, Harper said, about half of that money would be spent.

The natural character and visible location of the Aiple property, she said, will offset urban commerce that will likely result from construction of a new St. Croix bridge at Oak Park Heights, scheduled to open in late 2016.

"It really is the showcase commissioners have been looking at since 2006," she said.

"This land will always be there for the use and enjoyment of the public and to protect the river."

Elayne Aiple said she wanted to conserve the land rather than see it parceled into condominium projects. Love for conservation and a strong connection to land is common among landowners who apply to the Land and Water Legacy program.

As the county's principal planner, Harper takes on special projects that have included consolidating Washington County's watershed districts and now, forging an economic development plan.

"A lot of what I do is sorting out roles and relationships," she said.

Nobody has been appointed yet to take over Land and Water Legacy when Harper leaves the county, but she thinks most current projects will be resolved by then.

"When I leave I can look back and when somebody asks me what I'm most proud of, I can say the Land and Water Legacy program," she said. "I think the general public is still interested in having a county that has remnants of rural character."