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Farmington School District may partner to preserve land

The first piece of land the Farmington School District bought as the site of a new high school isn't likely to see a school building anytime soon, and if the district agrees to a proposal made Monday by Dakota County and the Southern Dakota County Sportsmen's Club, there are parts of the property that might not ever see any development.

Farmington School Board members were mostly receptive Monday to a proposal to put at least 37 acres of undevelopable property along a stretch of the Vermillion River's south fork into a permanent conservation easement. That would prevent development on the land. It could also open doors to grants and other government funding that could be used to improve habitat on the land.

The sportsmen's club began the conversation on the easement after completing work on a conservation project a short distance west on the grounds of the Dakota County Fair. The club is also trying to work with the owner of property in between the fair and the school's property, and there have been conversations about similar work on land to the east of the district's property.

Al Singer, manager of Dakota County's farmland and natural areas preservation efforts, said it's important to work with entire corridors along waterways so protection from runoff or pollution is consistent along the length of the river.

It's far too early to say what would be done with the land if it is placed in an easement. Some board members envisioned using the land as an outdoor learning space down the line. Sportsmen's club president Bjorn Pearson had a similar vision.

"There's so many wonderful science and environmental projects you can do," he said.

There is section of the property north of the river that can be developed and another piece south of the river that can currently only be accessed from the north.

Board member Tim Burke was the only one to oppose the proposal outright. He objected to a decision he said would limit the district's options if it ever chose to sell the property. Burke suggested that as long as the district was not doing anything to harm the property it was as good as placing the land in an easement.

"I don't think we should give up our options for a couple thousand dollars," Burke said.

Singer disagreed. He said properly managing the property properly would involve taking steps to ensure the habitat is healthy and free of invasive species.

"Not managing is not being a good steward," Singer said. "You have to be attentive to what is actually happening on the land."

Dakota County would not actively manage the land if it is placed in an easement, but Singer said the county could provide guidance and help find grants and other funding for any work done on the land.

Singer said an easement on the southern part of the property could make the northern part more attractive to anyone who might want to develop the land, should the district choose to sell.

Other board members expressed at least tentative support for the plan. Board member Julie Singewald called protecting the land "the right thing."

"We do have a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers in our district, but we also have a responsibility to the county," Singewald said.

Others agreed.

"It's important to be stewards of the land," board member Melissa Sauser said. "We're parts of the whole here.... I think we need to realize we're not the only users of the land."

Superintendent Jay Haugen said the easement could be a "wonderful opportunity to get kids outside," as long as it works in the bigger picture for the district.

Board members did not make any decisions Monday beyond asking for more information about the plan and what it could mean for the district. There is no timeline for the process, but Singer said Monday he hopes to see something done before January, when the composition of the board could change.

The district bought the Castle Rock property for its new high school, but there were objections to the location and the district eventually abandoned the property in favor of the school's current location. The district currently rents the property as farmland.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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