A drive to save a natural area along a trout-sensitive stream in Washington County advanced last week when the county pledged money for its purchase.

The 17 acres in Stillwater Township, bordering Browns Creek, sit at the corner of a busy crossroads and would be attractive to anyone wanting to build a gas station, said David Johnson, a township supervisor.

"As a gateway to our community, we felt this was an inappropriate use of the property," he told the County Board last week.

Commissioners voted to fund at least some of the purchase cost of the Palmer property, as it's known, with money from the county's Land and Water Legacy program. The purchase will be the latest use of the voter-approved $20 million bond referendum fund to preserve open spaces and protect water quality from commercial development.

In a related action last week, commissioners approved spending as much as $247,000 in Legacy funds toward the purchase of 30 acres along La Lake in Woodbury for preservation. This land is at 6655 Bailey Road, just north of the Woodbury's La Lake Open Space. The city of Woodbury will pay the remaining $468,000 for the land.

The Palmer property, southeast of the busy Stillwater Township intersection of Hwy. 96 and Manning Av., holds significant importance as a natural area because the creek's health is a high priority for the Browns Creek Watershed District as it attempts to reintroduce trout in the upper reaches.

Brown trout, a cold-water species, have been stocked yearly in Browns Creek since 1958. Long-term studies show that sustaining native brook trout and other species in the creek had been troublesome because of impairments, according to a recent watershed district report.

Browns Creek, as it meanders southeast, will parallel the new Browns Creek State Trail that is to be built next spring. Environmentalists have raised concern about harm to the creek with 75,000 people a year using the adjacent trail, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it would limit access to the creek from the trail.

Portion may be a trailhead

The western portion of the Palmer property is envisioned as a trailhead for the Lake Links and Central Greenways regional trails, which intersect at the property, and the forthcoming state trail that is a third of a mile to the south. Trail development has gained considerable traction in Washington County in recent years.

The county's Parks and Open Space Commission recommended the use of Legacy funds on the condition that Stillwater Township restore land along Browns Creek, on the eastern border of the property, to improve infiltration and to add thermal protection to the creek.

Johnson said Stillwater Township and the city of Stillwater would work together to preserve the land.

The County Board voted 5-0 to contribute to a purchase price that will be negotiated with the landowner, Central Bank. Commissioner Fran Miron said he wanted to protect the "environmental sensitivity of the area," and Commissioner Gary Kriesel also endorsed the preservation.

"It's returning something back to the taxpayers," Kriesel said. "We all like to give them something to touch and feel."