Dozens of Lakeville residents are objecting to the school district's sale of 14 acres north of Kenwood Middle School to a homebuilder, saying the property was sold after several closed-session school board discussions that violated Minnesota's Open Meeting Law.

Neighbors and students say the sale is unfortunate because the area is frequently used by student athletes for practice, middle school teachers for lessons and residents as a place to walk and enjoy nature.

"We really lost a precious resource for the community and the kids," said Jason Just, Lakeville South High School's boys cross country coach.

The land has trails, wetlands and 200-year-old oak trees on it, he said, along with part of a disc golf course that is jointly run by the city and the school district.

The property is under a purchase agreement with Lennar Corp., with an inspection period ending April 1, 2024. Lennar bought the land for $1 million and plans to build single-family homes; the company will pay the district more if they divide the land into more than 21 lots.

To build homes there, the land's designation in the city's Comprehensive Plan would need changing, as it's currently deemed "public open space." Many who oppose the sale hope that the City Council won't approve this step, which requires a supermajority of the council.

The school district and Lennar both declined to comment on the sale.

Justin Miller, Lakeville's city administrator, said Lennar hasn't yet submitted anything to the city. If and when they do, the planning commission will hold its usual public hearing; then it will go to the council.

Just said boys and girls cross country teams practice together at the site two or three times a week in the summer and fall. Lakeville North runners also use it. The Nordic ski team — comprised of students from both high schools — practices there every winter day when there's snow on the ground, and both teams hold an annual meet there.

Students from all three middle schools practice sports there, too, he said.

The frustration stems from the school board's secrecy, Just said. He said board members didn't tell district staff or the public about the sale before it happened, and didn't do the due diligence they would have if they were selling, say, a football facility.

Resident Amy Eggers said her home backs up to the sold property. There's lots of wildlife there and she was told it would never be developed.

"That's my serenity, that's my peace," she said.

Open meeting questions

Under Minnesota's Open Meeting Law, public meetings can be held in closed session for discussion about real estate transactions — but the public must first be notified which specific property is the subject of the closed meeting.

Lakeville district officials confirmed the sale was discussed in closed meetings on Aug. 22, Sept. 16 and Oct. 17, according to emails to a resident obtained by the Star Tribune.

At the Oct. 24 school board meeting, the property's location was identified on the agenda for the first time. Bill Holmgren, the district's business services director, described the area as "property we don't use at this time" that was "very hilly" with lots of low, wet areas.

School Board Member Terry Lind said the 14 acres was "too small to build anything on," and smaller than any existing school site.

Holmgren said Lennar offered the district $1 million for the land. If the property were divided up into additional lots beyond the initial plans, the district would get $46,000 per lot. The money would go into the district's capital funds, he said.

The school board unanimously approved the purchase agreement at that meeting.

Lakeville City Council Member Dan Wolter said he thinks the requirement of a 4/5 majority vote to change the Comprehensive Plan gives the council some leeway in considering whether the project is right for the site.

"For me it gives me pause, too, because I do think that's a higher hurdle," he said.

Usually, if an applicant senses that the city doesn't like their project and may not approve it, they pull back and rethink its details, Wolter said.

Wolter said he tries to give public officials the benefit of the doubt — he doesn't think board members were being malicious with the sale. School boards don't deal with land use much, he said, and several board members are new.

They may have made a misstep in their level of openness with the community, he said.

Students, teachers speak out

Several dozen residents opposed to the land sale showed up to at least one school board meeting and two City Council meetings to share their concerns.

At a Dec. 11 council meeting, they arrived carrying signs saying "Keep Our Trails" and "Students First."

Chris Markham said she taught science at Kenwood Middle School for 20 years and spent many hours with students on the wooded property. She was "devastated" to hear it was sold, she said, and told the council she hopes they "think long and hard about rezoning that property."

Jackson Thunker, a senior and Nordic ski captain at Lakeville North High School, said he was "pretty furious" to hear the school board sold the land they practice on without telling the team.

Lakeville resident Joanne Pahl said other districts are envious of the open space.

"It's such a treasure back there," she said. "I really hope this doesn't go any further."

Scott Braun said he first heard about the land sale at a Nordic ski parent meeting. He noted that the district failed to have the land appraised.

In a Dec. 4 email obtained by the Star Tribune, School Board Chair Kim Baker confirmed to a resident that there had been no appraisal.

Joey Miller, owner of Country Joe Homes in Lakeville, said he has a housing development across the street. He said the land might have sold for up to $1.5 million — and that he would have bid $1.2 million — if the district had gotten additional bids.

Grace Olson, a school district spokeswoman, said the district followed state law, which doesn't require multiple bids. There's also no statutory requirement to have land appraised, she said.

The sale was short-sighted, Miller said, adding that the property is used more than some city parks and is in a prime location.

"Somebody must have had an agenda," Miller said. "Why would we not keep [it]?"