The demise of a housing project on the edge of Northfield has given the city the opportunity to acquire two large parcels of land that it plans to develop into a park and trails.
Northfield’s request for the tax-forfeited land on the southeast edge of the city was recently approved by the Rice County Board. A formal transfer of title will be handled by the state in the near future.
The two parcels, which total about 40 acres, once were destined to become part of Fargaze Meadows, a 155-acre subdivision that was to have 300 single-family homes and 330 units of multifamily housing.
Heritage Development of Minnesota began building the first of three phases of the project but was sunk by the economic and housing downturn. In 2006, the Little Canada developer sold the undeveloped portions to another business entity. The vacant parcels went into foreclosure in 2008.
Unpaid taxes, penalties and fees total more than $76,000, according to Rice County records.
The County Board said Northfield’s stated goal of turning the land into a city park was “the best public use” for the property, rejecting requests by two former owners to repurchase the property.
The county has been leasing the land to a local group of farmers including Brian Peterson, who said he previously owned the parcels and had sold them in the 1980s to Heritage Development. Peterson said he did not try to repurchase the land out of foreclosure, believing the cost might be too high because of unpaid special assessments on the property.
Northfield currently has 35 parks and open green spaces, in addition to walking and bicycle trails. The two vacant parcels are in an area previously designated by the city as a future park site.
Fran Windschitl, the county’s auditor/treasurer, said this isn’t the first time a community has claimed tax-forfeited land for public use. “But not on this scale. I don’t believe we’ve ever had this occur for such a large acreage,” he said.
Windschitl also said it’s very unusual for developable land to be tax-forfeited. He said the county assessor most recently valued the two parcels at around $362,000. That’s down from the prerecession peak of about $826,000.
Northfield’s stated goal of developing the land for public use will allow it to acquire the property for nothing except minimal fees and special assessments. But in addition to the still-to-be-determined cost of developing the park, the city also will incur some immediate costs to improve stormwater drainage at the site.
There’s also a huge and unsightly mound of dirt on the land — topsoil that was scraped off and reserved by the housing developer to be used later as a base for sod. Besides being an eyesore, the dirt pile is considered a potential safety hazard for kids in the area who sometimes play on it.
“It’s been the source of complaints by residents in the area,” said Joe Stapf, Northfield’s public works director. “It’s unfortunate that Rice County has not taken care of it.”
City Administrator Tim Madigan told the County Board at a recent meeting that immediate plans call for putting up “no trespassing” signs. “We don’t have a definite plan for [the dirt] now, but we’ll find a use for it,” he said.