A 21-acre plot on the Crow River in the far reaches of Hennepin County has surfaced as a point of debate about county involvement in preserving land.
Board Chairman Mike Opat raised concerns last week and said he's likely to vote against spending $64,000 to help acquire a conservation easement on the private land in Greenfield.
The Crow is a tributary of the Mississippi River along a corridor that county staff called "ecologically significant," in part because it contains old-growth oak savanna, floodplain forest and wetlands that provide habitat for the plover, kingfisher, osprey, other birds and Blanding's turtle. The easement would prohibit development on the land in perpetuity, advocates say.
The county's Environmental Services Department and the Minnesota Land Trust negotiated the easement on the property held by John S. Geis, who would receive $224,000 in state Outdoor Heritage money in exchange for agreeing not to develop it. The $64,000 from the county would cover fees and other costs associated with acquiring the easement.
But Opat isn't convinced the easement is necessary or wise. He wondered whether the land would be developed any time soon or if the deal would do little more than enrich a property owner.
"I'm not sure it's the county's role to look for conservation easements," he said, adding that he was "not at all comfortable" with the deal.
According to county records, Geis acquired the land through a warranty deed in 2002 for less than $500 from Wilfred and Elaine Bechtold. Reached at her home Friday, Elaine Bechtold couldn't recall the price but said the family sold the land for market value -- much more than $500.
Behind on taxes
When Geis fell into arrears on taxes and showed up in county notices, the property caught the eye of county Environmental Services, said assistant director Rosemary Lavin.
"The fact that it was on the river and that it wasn't developed sparked some interest," she said. The land's location also would provide a possible connection between the Crow-Hassan and Lake Rebecca parks, Lavin said. The $224,000 price is market value, she said.
For taxes payable in 2012, the county estimated the value at $256,000, with a net tax of $3,597.
Similar preservation acquisitions occur about once a year, Lavin said. "We're looking at corridors that connect natural areas and how they might be preserved," she said.
Once negotiations with the county and the land trust got started, Geis paid up his taxes, pulling the property out of the tax forfeiture process. He did not return multiple calls last week.
Geis would retain rights to build on one acre -- enough for a "single-family residence and/or parking for a future park," according to a staff report.
Board Member Jeff Johnson, who represents the area, said he's voting for the easement because he's been "willing to rely upon the opinions of our environmental staff."
Johnson noted that Geis is a willing seller of the easement. "If there's public benefit and the cost is relatively small to the county, that makes sense," he said.
He disputed Opat's argument that given the current market, development is unlikely on the land for some time. Johnson said exurban areas are the places that will be developed because they are available.
Relating to potential development, Board Member Peter McLaughlin said, "You've got to assume it's coming."
He said he's undecided on whether to vote for the deal.
"It's a lot of money," he said. "I compared it a little bit to the purchase of land around the lakes in Minneapolis and that showed great foresight."
He was pleased to learn the easement is attached to the deed even if Geis would sell. He has some additional questions that have yet to be answered, such as whether the county would need to pay more to put a trail across the easement.
Generally, though, he finds such purchases a reasonable county role. "To me it's not an activity that's unacceptable," he said. "I just want to make sure it's reasonable."
The vote is Tuesday.
"I'll lose that vote but it doesn't matter," a resigned Opat said.
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson