Savage case tests whether fens, development can coexist

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 6:55 PM

City examines whether it should facilitate development near a protected fen.

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Oct. 16, 2007 - A sumac leaf is nearly submerged by rain water collecting on the ground of Savage Fen near 126th St. and Kenwood Ave. S. in Savage The Savage City Council approved a housing development along the border of the Savage Fen, a delicate natural area the city has boasted for decades for preserving. Federal environmental agencies in the past have discouraged that very thing, and a group of citizens is suing to stop it. The Fen is considered rare, sensitive to disturbance, and supports a distinctive natural community.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For nearly 30 years, Karl Bohn has been holding — and paying taxes on — a prime piece of land overlooking the Minnesota River in Savage, expecting that someday he could sell and cash in.

Now, on the brink of a deal with a homebuilder, he’s confronting a big obstacle: Its location near a rare type of protected wetland means an extra chunk of the land must be set aside, undeveloped, wiping 24 new home sites off the board. And his attempts to get the city to compensate him for his loss are complicated by the sticky fact that he’s the mayor’s brother.

“It shouldn’t be just my burden,” said Bohn, who faces the same issues with two other large parcels near the Savage Fen, one of the best and rarest examples of a delicate form of wetlands.

Even in wetland-heavy Minnesota, the 400-plus acre Savage Fen Wetland Complex is unique. Part of it is a calcareous fen, a variety that has been given special protection under the state’s wetlands conservation act. “It hosts a number of rare plant and animal species that don’t exist otherwise,” said Peggy Booth, program manager of scientific and natural areas for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The Savage Fen and Seminary Fen on the Chaska-Chanhassen border are the largest calcareous fens in the state.

The issue could continue to pop up as development encroaches on the fens.

“Both the Seminary and Savage fens are in areas where there could be more development, and to the extent that affects ground or stormwater, there will be some risk for impact,” Booth said.

Peter Coyle, a Minneapolis land use attorney, agreed that situations like the one with Bohn’s property are likely to arise more frequently. “Standards [for protecting water quality and the environment] continue to escalate,” he said.

A $400,000 hit

The 164-unit housing development proposed by D.R. Horton in Savage would be on a bluff, uphill from the fen. Bohn always expected to leave a 25-acre buffer between the development and the fen, but it turns out 8 additional acres — roughly the acreage of Target Field — are needed for extra ponding to meet more stringent storm drainage requirements. City officials have estimated that that reduces the price Bohn would get for the land by about $400,000 but say the actual loss could be higher because of costs to construct the extra ponding.

“All I’m asking for is fair market value,” Bohn said. He said a previous deal to sell the 100-plus acres to another developer for a commercial and residential project fell through because of the added costs of stormwater drainage requirements. The same issue has come up with two other sites near the fen he would like to sell, including one where a senior housing developer backed out of a project. “Buyers go elsewhere where there are no restrictions,” Bohn said.

The issue is whether the city should play a role in leveling the playing field because of stricter stormwater requirements near the fen. City Administrator Barry Stock said officials are trying to figure out whether it would be appropriate for the city to assume some of the financial burden, perhaps by acquiring land being set aside and paying to install the storm drainage ponds.

Such an investment could pay off for the city, because the land’s taxable value would increase once it’s developed. Stock said it’s not that different from other steps the city has taken to encourage development, like acquiring vacant properties and helping redevelop them.

“There are arguments you could make on both sides,” Stock said. “There are people who never would want to see some of this open land developed. They love seeing the turkeys, they love the deer. Others want that property on the tax rolls.”

Laurie Karnes, a Maple Grove land broker, said the city should be wary of stepping in. She said it’s not unusual for a property owner to accept a lower sale price if it carries some type of burden. To think otherwise, she said, “would be like buying property next to the railroad tracks and complaining because there are trains there.”

‘Can the city play a role?’

But Stock said this situation is different because Bohn bought the property long before the restrictions went into place about nine years ago.

Coyle said it makes sense for property owners and cities to work together. “Can the city play a role? I would say yes, as long as it can articulate a reason why it needs to be involved.” He said the city can’t be arbitrary in how it deals with property owners.

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