Spurred by citizen interest and a realization that they have been slow to develop their own chains of parks, south and west metro counties are turning their attention to the creation of major regional parks.
In an area that has seen many residents take advantage of parks in other areas, these are among the signs of change:
• Dakota County is pursuing the millions it needs to clinch a tentative $15 million deal to buy from a family hundreds of acres north of Farmington that would provide the link between a vast area of land in public ownership.
• Scott County, in the midst of its first land-buying surge in decades, hopes to allow people access as soon as this summer to two major sites that will not be fully built out for many years.
• Carver County is considering asking voters to raise their taxes in order to accelerate by decades the development of a park system.
Behind all the movement, advocates say, lies a growing awareness that providing parks, trails and open space is just about the most popular thing governments ever do.
And it follows an era in which all three counties have lagged behind others in the metro.
"It's a new venture for us," said Mark Themig, parks program manager for Scott, a position that has only existed since 2007.
Per capita visits to regional parks -- a measure of both citizen interest and the availability of attractive sites -- are just a fraction in all three counties of what they are in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
And citizens feel the absence of choices. In a 2006 survey, Scott citizens' assessment of their "access to parks" was way below the norm expressed in surveys of people in similarly-situated counties around the nation. Ratings in other areas, such as child care, were well above the national norm.
As cities and townships in counties like Scott began to turn into bedroom communities decades ago, officials note in defense of their predecessors, many early residents lived on large-acreage lots or on lakes. Treasuring the low taxes that came with suburban life, they had little incentive to lay ambitious plans for parks.
But today early landowners are aging, retiring, passing away -- and large parcels are reaching the market, even as urban sprawl is gobbling up high percentages of the most attractive land even at the farthest reaches of the county. A recent acquisition in Scott, for example, means there will be public ownership of what may be the last remaining undeveloped lakeshore on any recreational-sized lake in the entire county.
At the same time, the housing boom has gone bust, creating some land-price bargains that officials wish to take advantage of before good times return and prices skyrocket.
The willingness of people in Dakota earlier this decade to vote themselves a collective $20 million tax increase to save open space and farmland made a big impression on surrounding counties, experts add -- and others may follow suit.
"Those referendums prove there's a demand," said Joshua Houdek, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club.
But there isn't a lot of extra money to buy land. The county board in Carver was warned in November that, as things now stand, it could take 12 to 26 years before "work would go forward to develop existing parks or new park areas would be considered for acquisition," according to a memo that emerged from that session.
And that's at a time when the opening of a long-awaited new freeway, Hwy. 212, is expected to bring a huge new burst of growth, creating population pressures much like those the new Minnesota River bridge created in Scott County beginning in the late 1990s.
Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze said: "We're conducting a citizen survey now, partly to gauge public sentiment on whether to increase taxes for open space. But the board is a long way from making that decision. It wants to wait for the results of the survey."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023