Plans for a nature center in Inver Grove Heights continue to broaden as they move closer to becoming reality.
Vance Grannis Jr. envisions transforming 130 acres of rolling land into a sprawling nature center, complete with an interpretive center that would also serve as a training ground for student hunters, and the latest twist is the addition of a senior housing complex.
The Inver Grove Heights City Council last week unanimously approved a zoning ordinance amendment, clearing another hurdle in Grannis’ efforts to realize his vision. The council’s action will rezone the property’s 133 acres from rural residential to a designation that limits its use to private recreation and open space.
“While this is a unique and site-specific ordinance amendment, we think it makes sense,” City Planner Allan Hunting said, recommending approval.
“I’m trying to preserve and protect this land for future generations, rather to be forced into developing it and putting lots on it,” said Grannis, the city’s first mayor, from his law office in Eagan. “To do that, you have to have something there, and the something that we came up with is the nature center to allow people to go out and enjoy this land.”
He wants to preserve to be a sort of outdoor classroom for students, since “today’s youth suffers from nature deficit disorder and there’s this movement to ‘leave no child inside.’ ”
Grannis said the nature center, which will be called Darvan Acres, will feature an interpretive center with classrooms, administrative offices, a day care facility and “an indoor gun safety area,” although he reiterated that he has no plans to build a shooting range.
Instead, Grannis said he would open the property to gun safety training classes run by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A jump in demand for firearm safety training, which is required by state law for anyone seeking a hunting license, has strained training facilities in the south metro.
The interpretive center will be built on the site where the old City Hall building stood, just north of the Grannis homestead.
The project has provoked the ire of some neighbors, who voiced their concerns at a recent planning commission meeting about noise and the change to the comprehensive plan to allow Grannis to build a 53-unit senior independent living facility in the property’s northeast corner, Hunting said.
“They felt it was just different and out of character of the city,” Hunting said by phone last week.
He said it’s too early to know how many visitors the reserve will attract.
With the go-ahead from the City Council, Grannis can now turn his focus to raising funds. In 2011, local legislators proposed using state bond money for the project, but Grannis said he would try to find grants and funding to pay for construction.
Grannis said the next step is “to have a source of funding to help to operate this, so it isn’t all seeking donations all the time.”
The property sprawls over 133 acres of rolling hills and a chain of lakes, and it is home to a variety of wildlife, including foxes, deer and bald eagles.
If Grannis has his way, the 200-year-old oak trees that dot the land will “die of natural causes or something and not be bulldozed down” to make way for development projects.
He is working with Dakota County officials to place the property in a conservation easement to protect it from further development.
More than anything, Grannis said he hopes the nature preserve will provide children an escape to nature.
“If all we’re doing there is sitting there and saying we’re going to put a fence around it and saying we’re keeping it from getting destroyed, I don’t think it does much to benefit the larger population as we’re trying to do,” he said.