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Regional park is taking shape

This sign marks the boundary of current county park property in Empire Township. The county's offerings in the area will increase once a new regional park is completed.

The woods off of Station Trail are quiet on a Tuesday morning. With fresh snow blanketing roads and clinging to branches, signs of recent activity are obvious. On the road, at least, they're rare. Only a few tire tracks cut through several inches of fresh powder, and if you drive far enough there's not even that. The road disappears beneath a frosty blanket.

That could change soon, though.

Bit by bit and detail by detail Dakota County's newest regional park is taking shape. And when it opens, this part of Empire Township is likely to get a lot more active.

In the planning process since early 2000, the 456 acre park in Empire Township already has defined boundaries and some likely future uses. It was supposed to get a name this week, but members of the Dakota County Board, meeting Tuesday morning as the physical development committee, deferred the decision.

Still, considering the process of acquiring land for some regional parks can take 20 or 30 years, things seem to be zipping right along.

"I think actually we have made great strides," said Steve Sullivan, Dakota County's director of parks and recreation.

There are more strides still to come. A process will begin later this year to develop a master plan for the park -- and for several thousand acres of state- and University of Minnesota-owned land set aside as recreational space next door -- and park construction is in the county's capital improvement plan with $1 million in Metropolitan Council funding for 2012.

That construction would bring to an end a planning process that started with recognition by the Metropolitan Council that there was a hole in the regional park system in the Rosemount area. The decision by the Met Council launched an effort by the county to identify potential park locations, and that led to Empire Township.

Sullivan said the current site was "clearly the best" of those considered because of the natural resources available there and because of its location near Rosemount and Lakeville.

The bill for acquiring 825 acres in the area -- the park land and 360 acres for the DNR -- was $14.81 million. Money came from state bonds, the Met Council and Dakota County.

Sullivan sees a lot of opportunity for the area. The property, with its wooded hills and a small lake, offers room for a variety of recreational uses. Lone Rock Trail is currently open on the property for hiking, horseback riding and cross country skiing.

But the regional park is only part of the deal. The park is located next to Vermillion Highlands, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife management area with space for hunting and trapping. The U of M owns more land nearby that will be set aside for public use. The master plan that will be developed over the next year will help determine exactly how all of those properties will work together.

A four-person Vermillion Highlands Operating Committee made up of representatives from Empire Township, the U of M, Dakota County and the DNR will oversee operations on the entire property.