As pickup trucks roar past far above, raising trails of dust on a hot summer day, a gorgeous little sun-dappled creek trickles across the midsection of Scott County. Branches stretch leaves languidly across the water, offering shade.
And you’d never know any of it without stopping and climbing down treacherous banks.
But Porter Creek is one important feature of what promises to be a major new addition to the metro area’s stock of regional parks. It meanders across a 148-acre parcel of land worth $1.3 million, the biggest addition to the proposed Doyle-Kennefick Regional Park in nearly a decade.
Land nearby is still obsessively posted as private every few feet along the road. And the park-in-waiting is still so obscure that the chairman of a key Metropolitan Council committee last week admitted he probably “murdered” its pronunciation, saying something that sounded like “Kid flick.” The council staffer presenting the county’s request admitted she had no idea what road access exists to the property, seeing as she’s never actually been there.
Mark Themig, the county’s parks manager, can shrug all that off with a smile, considering that outside funds from sources like the Met Council are expected to cover the vast majority of the cost of a park that will be for everyone’s use but that sits in his own constituents’ back yard.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” he said, “and it looks like we have strong support in acquiring it. The committee was unanimous last week, and in my experience that’s a good sign for full council approval.”
That approval is expected on Wednesday.
It certainly didn’t draw the puzzled reaction that a Dakota County proposal did a few moments later when the county put in a request for hundreds of thousands of dollars to — apparently, judging from maps — mostly just buy a bunch of land covered in water.
The land pickup comes thanks in part to the housing bust, which landed these and other nearby acres in the hands of a lender, Premier Bank.
Bank officials did not respond to a request for comment, but they reportedly are trying to revive a failed residential development called St. Catherine on the Lake.
Buyers of the property would have the bonus of having permanent public parkland nearby. Officials of Cedar Lake Township, south of Prior Lake, are more wary, as once-taxable land passes into public hands.
“They’re very concerned about the impact of additional parkland moving from taxable to exempt,” Themig said. “That’s why in the development master plan for the park, we work hard to retain the buildable portion of the property.”
Cedar Lake isn’t the only township concerned.
With public agencies actively working with property owners to acquire land near the Minnesota River south of Belle Plaine to create another regional park, Blakeley Bluffs, a supervisor from that town board turned up at a Met Council workshop not long ago to express concern that the public has its eyes on some of the most gorgeous and potentially valuable rural land.
“That’s tax base for us,” John Busse said. “I’m concerned about agricultural preservation.”
The environmental side of it, though, Themig said, is that in both park areas, erosion from hilly farmland is hurting water quality. And he has tried, he said, to make the point that for some time to come, townships will actually experience a bump in tax value as land changes hands.
“Blakeley’s development as a park happens over 25 to 50 years,” he said, “so it will be many years before they’re converted to public use. For 10 years, property taxes actually increase, as land that has been homesteaded transitions to where it’s being rented out under our stewardship. We cover those taxes.”
Longer-term, nonprofits and others working to increase public open space also make the point that parks tend to increase property values nearby, raising the tax yield.
Themig did acknowledge, though, that that’s more true in more built-up areas than it is in more wide-open rural areas, where “open space” is a given.
Doyle-Kennefick has been identified as the most important natural resource area in its part of the county: about 500 acres so far, planned to rise to 914 acres, from St. Catherine Lake on the north to Lennon Lake on the south.
County planning documents boast of — apart from farmland — 650 acres of natural land, “300 of which are native plant communities.” Species found there include Blanding’s turtles, sandhill cranes and bald eagles, among more than 100 bird species thought to be present within the park.
The added parkland comes in a 10-year period in which Dakota and Scott Counties are easily among the leaders in the seven-county metro area in luring dollars and adding acres for regional parks.
Indeed, at the very same Met Council committee meeting at which Chairman Gary Cunningham hailed the Doyle-Kennefick parcel as a “beautiful piece of land down there,” Dakota County moments later was seeking about half a million bucks to buy land along the Mississippi River for Spring Lake Park Reserve that Cunningham described as looking like “mostly water,” adding:
“I’m still struggling with the water. Why are we buying the water? I don’t understand.”
Staffers explained that it’s 3,200 feet of shore land that will become public, and that it looks so odd because the platting of the land still dates from the 19th century, when a dam had not yet backed up water over much of the site.
In Scott County, the request is to contribute $983,000, with a 25 percent local match to cover the $1.3 million. Scott hopes to recoup the rest as well from the Met Council later on, for a facility that is intended for use by folks all over the metro area. But the council isn’t offering guarantees.