Shaping the Scott County landscape: Reserve plans advance

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2012 - 4:41 PM

In the river bluffs of rural Scott County, plans for a major regional reserve park are taking shape earlier than expected.

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Mark Themig, manager of parks in Scott County, led a tour of the vast fields in Blakeley Township that will become a part of the planned Blakely Bluffs Park Reserve. Foreclosures in the area are pushing up the timetable for acquiring land for one of the last metro area regional parks.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Audrey Kjellesvig lives in a swatch of rural Scott County, hundreds of feet below the bluffs of the Minnesota River, where the combined force of the river water and the jungle-like plant life generates a humidity so fierce that it slaps a blanket of blinding mist right across your sunglasses the instant you step from your car.

Snakes race across the lawn. Hawks and eagles circle, waiting for tweety bird to settle onto one of her bird feeders -- then swoop down for a snack.

Other than that sort of drama, it feels idyllic: like a north-lakes cabin a few minutes south of the metro. Yet she smiles at the notion.

"My husband talked me into this," she confides. "He wanted to 'live on the land.' It was the '60s."

Owner at one time of hundreds of acres, she's about ready to clear out -- or at least she can see that moment coming. And her timing is perfect, because a major new regional park that was long thought to be decades away is starting to be hustled forward surprisingly soon.

Cheap land and a burst of new state and federal money for parks have meant that Scott County's top parks man, Mark Themig, is now in frequent talks with landowners, township officials and others, sketching out a future for the Blakeley Bluffs Park Reserve, one of the very few major parks left to be created within the seven-county metro area.

Kjellesvig's land is but a part of thousands of acres of bluff land and flood plain that would form the park, along the river south of Belle Plaine and a short hop west of Hwy. 169.

The sudden lurch forward in a plan that has always been described as a distant vision has created some tensions.

"We've been surprised and we've had some mixed feelings about it," said Brian Schmidt, standing tall and imposing behind the head table of Blakeley's town hall before a meeting last week.

"We see value in saving the land from development, but people also worry about the side effects: about the traffic, about the change in our way of life," as a once-remote and serene corner of the universe threatens to become a bit of an activity center.

'Little Lanesboro?'

In fact, as Themig stands on the empty streets of the hamlet of Blakeley, just off the river, he only half-jokingly speaks of its becoming a "little Lanesboro" one day.

Blakeley, whose river frontage and rail access by 1870 had drawn four general stores and several other shops and saloons, has long since settled back into oblivion. It isn't even mentioned in census counts these days; on paper, it's just an invisible part of its surrounding township, though it does still feel like a tiny village, with a smattering of occupied homes.

"We're probably talking 50 or 100 years from now," Themig adds, "but I can see the private sector coming in here and restoring this old [and now empty] bank building or another historic structure here and renting out canoes and kayaks for a trip downriver from Henderson to here.

"It would be a perfect length for a trip, and it would run through some beautiful country."

Plans to turn the area roughly from Blakeley to Henderson into a regional park reserve -- "reserve" meaning an area that's mostly wild and natural, with less than a fifth of the land developed for human use in the form of campsites and the like -- have advanced partly because of enticing opportunities to buy.

Notably, a striking 84-acre parcel on the riverbluffs, featuring a McMansion with two huge sheds for its owner's antique cars, that had been valued at one time at well over a million dollars, went on the market after the economy tanked and plopped into foreclosure at a fire-sale price. The county was able to pick it up for $550,000.

The house is practically brand-new, having been built last decade, and could become an imposing centerpiece for a future park.

Adam Block, the renter who is keeping the place occupied in the meantime -- it takes him a full hour just to mow the lawn, he reports, with a 54-inch deck on a riding mower -- says that nature is ever-present already.

"I could take a wild turkey from my window almost any day," he said, "and deer wander along the edge of the lawn and the woods, without showing any fear."

The thought had been to offset public costs by making money from the house as an events center, hosting weddings and the like. But the township board put the kibosh on that: It was afraid the county would leach business from the private sector.

If there've been hiccups, though, there's also tremendous potential. Themig guides his visitors onto a farm, around the edge of a cornfield that now pours sediment into ravines and eventually muddies the river during storms, and up to an overlook with a stunning view over the river valley and into Sibley County on the west.

"We're probably 900 feet above the surface of the water," he says. "It's very unique to have river bluffs this close to the water along this stretch of the river."

In fact, the topography of the area is so dramatic, he said, that it's likely this park reserve, instead of being 20 percent developed, might only be 5 or 10 percent developed.

Ready to sell

Another advantage of the area is that it isn't chopped into tiny parcels. It's owned by relatively few people with large holdings, making land purchases more manageable.

Kjellesvig, for instance, is aging. She can feel a time coming when she will have to give up the property.

"I'd like to have a life estate if and when I sell, and then stay here till I'm too feeble to stay here all by myself," she said.

There's a certain delicacy for the county in hovering around such human circumstances, wishing to create a park but not pressing anyone either. "We're not asking people to sell," Themig said, partly because there's no thought of an actual park in the near term, nor is there a lot of money to spend.

Kjellesvig at one time held around 250 acres, since shaved to 124 after shedding land to family and a piece of flood plain to the federal government for the expanding Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

It's a paradox, she knows, that talks are taking place with owners perhaps decades before a park can actually be visited. But she's in favor.

"If you're going to save it," she said, "save it now, before it gets covered with mansions."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

  • TO LEARN MORE

    Scott County's Web page devoted to its Blakeley Bluffs planning can be found at www.startribune.com/a1480

    There's a link to the master plan for the area, with lots of photos and maps.

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