At some point, nearly everyone involved in Darvan Acres' nine-year road to becoming a county-protected natural area thought it wouldn't happen.

The 108-acre parcel of land in Inver Grove Heights — at $3.9 million, the most expensive of Dakota County's 109 conservation easements — ran into several roadblocks on its path to protection, but it finally got the easement last week.

"We wanted to prevent it from being developed if there was a way to do it," said landowner Vance Grannis Jr. "People would tell me to keep fighting and so I did."

The property, part of the Marcot Lakes and Valley, includes breathtaking views and some of the county's clearest and cleanest bodies of water, and is home to a range of wildlife, including bald eagles.

The land remains pristine though it's in the middle of a growing suburb. It has been in Grannis' family since the 1920s when they bought part of the land for a dairy farm. Grannis' grandfather added to it in 1953.

Grannis and his wife, Darlene, have been pursuing a conservation easement since 2008. "Darvan" is a combination of their first names.

"It was a complicated project and there were controversies," said Al Singer, Dakota County's land conservation manager. "I'm just really thankful that everything came together at the end."

A conservation easement from the county protects the land from development while the landowner retains ownership and is responsible for managing it.

But Grannis has always had a bigger dream than conservation. He wants to create an environmental education center on the land. The beginnings of Darvan Acres Nature Center are already there, but Grannis wants to expand, offering classes in outdoor skills.

That unconventional vision was one of several things that tripped up the easement process, Singer said. In addition to the nature center, Grannis' main goal was to safeguard the land as wildlife habitat. He didn't want the land open to the public — just to specific groups and nature center programming.

"That was difficult for some of the [county] commissioners to accept," Singer said.

The county, Grannis and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also disagreed on a fair appraisal of the land's value.

Then last summer, after the County Board agreed to buy the easement, there were concerns that the purchase might not meet funding requirements of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council because the environmental education center didn't directly relate to preserving fish, game and wildlife habitat.

Dakota County ultimately paid $3.9 million for the easement, using $2.9 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund and $1 million from the county. There was also a significant landowner contribution, Singer said, because the land value likely exceeds the purchase price. In seven years, the county gets the title to the property outright.

Since Darvan Acres abuts a 103-acre conservation easement owned by Lee Lindberg and his family, nearly 230 acres are now preserved, Singer said.

A haven for waterfowl

A variety of groups has been using Darvan Acres, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Simley High School classes, biology students at Inver Hills Community College, Pheasants Forever and the National Turkey Federation, which conducts an annual youth turkey hunt there with the DNR.

The site provides habitat for once-injured or orphaned waterfowl and songbirds from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville.

Grannis, a bird enthusiast who once helped raise trumpeter swans with the DNR, had already built a barnlike waterfowl nursery on his own 7 acres, which sits amid the easement. The county might eventually buy the plot.

Phil Jenni, executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, said that when he saw Grannis' facility, he knew it was perfect for easing his birds back into the wild. He lets the wood ducks, mallards, hooded mergansers, swans and songbirds go in Darvan Acres.

"They don't need medical care anymore, they just need to grow up, a place where they have space," Jenni said. "Last year we had the most ducks we've ever taken in and the best release rate of those ducks," he said. "It's because of our increased use of Darvan."

Former County Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler has championed Darvan Acres through its ups and downs.

"It really is in the heart of a prime area that would love development," Schouweiler said. "We managed to keep that from happening and preserve it forever."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781