The Lake Elmo Regional Park Reserve, Washington County’s most popular park, could grow substantially if county officials decide to acquire Tartan Park, a private 3M recreation retreat next door.
Whether that happens hinges on two months of research that Washington County commissioners authorized last week to help the Trust for Public Land (TPL) find ways to keep the 483-acre property from being plowed up and developed. County planners will explore commissioners’ concerns about lost tax revenue and other complexities, such as what to do about portions of the Tartan property that are most commercial in nature.
“There are a lot of issues to be considered before this could be a viable project,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Lake Elmo. “But if it isn’t preserved, it’s gone forever.”
The 3M Co. announced in May that it would seek a buyer for Tartan Park, which will close for good in December. The announcement came a year after 3M opened Tartan amenities to the public to shore up sagging revenue.
The modest uptick in the number of golf rounds played, however, was insufficient to offset revenue loss, said 3M spokeswoman Lori Anderson.
“There’s a decline in the number of users of the facility and it also needs significant capital investment,” she said in May.
Tartan Park was valued in the county’s 2015 assessment at $5.186 million, said Kevin Corbid, the county’s deputy administrator. The company, based in Maplewood, paid $167,663 in Tartan Park property taxes this year, of which $40,000 to $50,000 went to the city of Lake Elmo, he said.
For 50 years, Tartan Park attracted golfers to its rolling and wooded refuge, but on the condition that they worked for 3M, or knew somebody who did. The park has three 9-hole courses and a long menu of amenities that include a wedding gazebo, four softball fields, 12 tennis courts, six picnic pavilions, an archery range and bocce ball courts.
The park borders the 2,000-acre Lake Elmo Regional Park Reserve, popular with swimmers, anglers, hikers and campers. It also has trails for horses and, in the winter, has lighted trails for cross-country skiers.
Susan Schmidt and Bob McGillivray, of TPL, said in a letter to county commissioners that county ownership “would be the best protection” for Tartan Park. If Washington County chooses not to act, they wrote, “the company will move forward with its second option, which is selling Tartan Park for development.”
The park’s rolling topography is similar to that in the county park, they wrote, with pine and oak forests, wetlands and lakes, and an outlet to Lake Elmo, the park reserve’s largest lake.
At last week’s County Board workshop, where no official vote was taken, Schmidt and McGillivray pressed for urgency because of a deadline that 3M imposed. They asked that the county consider tapping into voter-approved Land and Water Legacy funds to help acquire the land.
“I’ve been on the property, it’s a beautiful piece of property, it certainly ties in well with our park reserve across the street and there are natural resources here that potentially could be protected under conservation easements,” said Commissioner Fran Miron.
Miron said “it’s a significant chunk of land within a city” and advised — as did Kriesel, the board chairman — that the county work closely with Lake Elmo city leaders on understanding tax alternatives.
Kriesel suggested that portions of the property could be privately owned, supplying some tax revenue to the city, with the remaining land added to the county park.
County Commissioner Lisa Weik, who represents Woodbury, cautioned that coupling the parks would leave a large segment of Lake Elmo in public ownership, more so than other Washington County cities.
But Kriesel countered that “Lake Elmo doesn’t want to be Woodbury. They want to preserve a lot of this, they want the open space.”
Kriesel also wondered whether the Metropolitan Council would ease growth requirements for Lake Elmo if so much “potentially developable land” became part of the county park.
The Lake Elmo City Council, voting 3-2, recently declared a moratorium on new housing in the city. The vote came after months of struggle over planned growth.
Lake Elmo Mayor Mike Pearson, who attended last week’s meeting with Jill Lundgren, another City Council member, said the Trust for Public Land proposal “has great potential,” and was pleased that the city was a partner in the discussion.
Craig Hanson, operations manager at Tartan, said in 2014 that 3M “wanted to get this place buzzing again with the level of use it had seen historically” but acknowledged that declining golf revenue was to blame.
Hanson said 3M countered by adding other amenities, such as meeting rooms and banquet facilities. It also built an outdoor gazebo for weddings and celebrations.
“It does have a very high conservation value,” Schmidt said of the Tartan land. “We view this as a great opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”