As neighbors listed problems at the Boys Totem Town property — buckthorn, overpopulation of deer and rabbits — it would have been easy to mistake the juvenile treatment center site for a nature preserve.
For more than a century, 71 acres on the eastern edge of St. Paul have been a home for youths who commit crimes and doubled as an informal park for residents in the Highwood Hills neighborhood.
Both of those roles could change as Ramsey County rethinks how it handles juvenile offenders. And St. Paul may end up with yet another massive open space for potential redevelopment, a possibility that has neighbors on edge.
County officials have not decided if they will continue to use the Totem Town site for residential treatment, said Ryan O’Connor, deputy county manager for Ramsey County’s Health and Wellness Service Team. However, the pastoral setting of Totem Town is out of date, O’Connor said, and national models recommend that kids should be integrated with family and community.
In the next few months, the county will evaluate its juvenile treatment program.
By the end of the year, officials will determine whether Totem Town still will be part of the program, O’Connor said. The county has three options: continue to use the site with its current capacity of 36 boys, reduce the number of offenders staying there or stop using it altogether.
If the county opts to use the site differently, it would have to work with St. Paul to determine what it could do with the land. That process likely would happen in 2018, O’Connor said. But the District 1 Community Council already has started gathering residents’ opinions.
More than 80 people attended a meeting Monday night to talk about what they want the government to do. The primary response was overwhelmingly to “preserve natural character.” Other suggestions include more accessibility and adding a community center.
Totem Town is in the first district, which has more open space than any other district in St. Paul. The natural setting is unique and should not change, residents said Monday.
“That’s what drew us to the neighborhood. We call it our city-country house,” resident Beth Paris said.
Boys Totem Town has become an unofficial dog park and skiing and hiking area, neighbors said.
The county will try to balance locals’ wishes with a need for property taxes, O’Connor said. So far, he said he has not been part of any specific discussions about economic development projects.
If the county decides to look into new uses, residents will get a chance to weigh in. St. Paul also likely would do planning and zoning studies, economic development spokeswoman Mollie Scozzari wrote in an e-mail.