Paul Bockenstedt found "a treasure trove" last week while strolling through Winslow Holacek's back 40 acres in central Andover: Sand reed grass, gray goldenrod, prairie bird's foot violet -- and the coup de grace -- several patches of beach heather, Hudsonia tomentosa, a rare, knobbly-sprigged plant that once was common on the dry oak savannah that used to cover much of Anoka County.
Bockenstedt is an ecologist hired by the Andover Open Space Advisory Commission. He, commission members Jody Keppers and Deric Deuschle, and Kameron Kytonen, the city's natural resources technician, rambled through the sand plain oak savannah, assessing it as a candidate for purchase by the city for green-space preservation. While the site is fairly overgrown, the beach heather was a good sign; the plant prefers land that's fairly undisturbed and open.
The Open Space Advisory Commission is hosting an information meeting today to answer residents' questions and to offer reports on the properties they've identified so far. Commission members stress that nobody's going to lose land to eminent domain. They're looking for land that owners are willing to sell, hand over in an easement, donate, or transfer in any other arrangement that works for the city's purposes and the landowners' financial needs.
Voters approved a $2 million bond for the project in 2006. Development in the city has slowed with the stagnant housing market, and commission members say now's the time to plan, ahead of future growth.
"Something is missing when you don't have space around you," said Deuschle, the commission chairman.
"There's a sense people want to preserve space they can go where they don't feel like they're in the city anymore."
The commission, formed a year ago last spring, acknowledges that progress has been slow. But members prefer to say they've been deliberate. They've carefully set criteria for the property they hope to purchase. They've assessed each site -- prairie, wetland, woods -- to weigh its quality, accessibility and other attributes, including whether it shelters a waterway or rare or endangered plant and animal species.
"We're taking our time to make sure it's really going to fit the needs and purpose of the commission," Deuschle said.
That $2 million may sound like a lot of money, he added, but it'll go fast, even with depressed property values. The commission can maximize the money's impact by purchasing adjoining land parcels, and by timing investments to fit with the annual state and federal grant cycles.
After picking through raspberry canes and skirting poison ivy, crossing a barbed-wire fence and ducking under branches, the group emerged in a clearing, ringed by 30-year-old oaks, aspen and white pine. The mossy, grassy floor was sandy. The fine, perfectly rounded grains had been tumbled for millennia by glaciers, water and wind.
Look in one direction, and the homes in the nearby Sophie's South neighborhood are visible. Look the other way and there's only wildflowers, grass, trees and sky. In some places, chorusing crickets just about drown out the sound of Crosstown and Hanson boulevards, nearby.
In the future, the land the city sets aside may or may not include trails or interpretive resources. But it will be there, to shelter wildlife and fragile plant species and remind residents of the city's natural heritage, and be, as Deuschle, said, "a place where people can disappear for a while if they want."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409