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Plan for Empire Township park comes into focus

One concept plan for the first phase of Whitetail Woods Regional Park. To see all three concept plans view the attached PDFs.

Art, food production and unique camping cabins are the focus of a plan for the first phase of a new Dakota County Park that will start to take shape next year in Empire Township.

Dakota County parks officials and representatives of the design firms that put the plan together presented the updated master plan Monday night at Lebanon Hills Park. It is filled with ideas like cabins on stilts, picnic areas and farming in several forms. There has been talk of putting in so-called edible pathways, trails where the foliage can provide sustenance for hikers. The good foods would be clearly marked, said Erica Christenson, a designer with HGA Architects and Engineers, who worked on the plan.

"If we're going to do food and have food be a clear element, we have to be very sensitive to that," she said.

The agricultural theme is present throughout plans for Whitetail Woods. In part that is because of the park's location in a largely agricultural area -- there are still working farms nearby -- but it's also because of larger cultural changes. There has been a renewed interest in recent years in the production of food. Gardens are popping up in backyards and in community plots. Several cities in the metropolitan area have cleared the way for residents to keep chickens.

The new park could feature agriculture in several forms, from gardens to row crops to orchards.

Christenson and landscape architect Travis Van Liere said designing the park's first phase was an interesting project, because it was an opportunity to step back and consider what parks are used for, and what might attract modern audiences.

"It's not your typical park like Lebanon Hills where it's nature based and recreation based," Van Liere said.

Christenson said many of the ideas in the plans for Whitetail Woods already exist in other Dakota County parks, just not on the same scale they are proposed here.

Other elements, like the camping cabins, are unique to Whitetail Woods. Plans on display Monday included so-called cabins in the trees, buildings on stilts set in the woods.

Designers are also working with Twin Cities artists on ideas for how to best bring art into the new park.

Monday's public meeting was lightly attended, but Christenson and Van Liere said response to the park was positive.

Three versions of the plan for the park's first phase went to the county's parks and recreation advisory commission on Wednesday. The plans will go to the county's physical development committee Sept. 18.

The county plans to seek bids for construction of the approximately $2.7 million first phase of the park in February, with construction to start in 2013. The first phase will serve as a sort of proving ground to demonstrate that there is demand for future phases.

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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