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Fight brewing over park plan

Landowners near Spring Lake Park are locked in what has become a bitter fight with Dakota County over their property.

The county is planning to take the property by March 31 by using a process called quick take condemnation. The landowners, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to stop their land from being taken. That includes, at least for one family, hiring a lawyer and taking the county to court. Proceedings were planned for Wednesday morning. The results of that hearing were not available at press time.

In all, Dakota County is planning to acquire about 127 acres of land to expand Spring Lake Park, including land for a new portion of a bike trail that would connect Hastings and South St. Paul. The county has significant plans for the property. They’d build an interpretive site, about five floating and permanently moored houseboats that they would rent and a shower house on part of the land, according to the master plan for the park, part of which is in Rosemount.

About 10.4 of those acres would come from the family of Richard Mauch, who bought property along Spring Lake Park about 50 years ago. His land includes a marina, set off by a natural bay, and a spring.

Mauch has since died and his family, including his daughters Joni Sargent and Nancy Drews, now own the property.

Drews’ husband, Gunter, is among the family members who are working hard to keep the land in the family.

“It’s a real sad thing,” Gunter Drews said. “History is going the way of the bulldozer again.”

The Sorg family of Hastings owns about 72 of the acres that the county is acquiring. Louis Gramsey owns about 40 acres. The county is acquiring their land by quick take condemnation, too.

Drews said his family was willing to sell the land for the trail to the county. Initially, the county told the family they wanted about 1.4 acres for the trail. That seemed like a good plan to the Drews family.

“We’re hoping to save part of it,” Drews said. “We had what we thought was a very good proposal. We wanted to give them the two acres to run the trail through, and a big trail easement and the whole nine yards, but they voted to take it all.

“We’re just stuck between a rock and another one.”

He said they had several meetings with the county over the property, and thought things were moving along well, painting what Drews said was a “rosy picture.”

All that changed on Nov. 5, though, when the county commissioners voted 6-1 to take the entire Drews property through eminent domain.

Commissioner Mike Slavik, who serves the Hastings area, was the lone dissenting vote.

“Something changed,” Drews said. “We aren’t sure why, how come, or what for. We had numerous meetings, not just one. Everything was in good faith until that one meeting. They slapped us."

“We worked in good faith for numerous years. We knew we couldn’t fight them.”

Nobody lives in the home now, but Drews said his sister-in-law was planning to move in soon.

They had begun to remodel the home, but have since held off on those plans, he said.

“After the county got breathing hard on it, it was like, ‘OK, we better hold back on throwing money at this if they’re going to come by and bulldoze it,’” he said.

The county will pay the family $370,000 for the land. The family, meanwhile, says they believe the land is valued much higher than that. The land has about 1,200 feet of shoreline on the river.

The trail

A paved trail is planned to run all the way from South St. Paul to Hastings, and that trail would link up with Hastings at the Spring Lake Park Reserve. It is called the Mississippi River Regional Trail.

The county has a sense of urgency to acquire the land it needs for the trail because federal grants for the project expire on March 31.

The master plan

Dakota County’s board of commissioners adopted the Spring Lake Park Master Plan in 2003. The plan calls for the park to be expanded, including the land the Drews own.

The term the county is using for properties like those owned by the Drews is “inholding.” The property is located within the boundaries drawn by the county for the park. The master plan states the importance of acquiring all the land within the boundaries of the park.

“The actual timeframe for acquiring inholder properties depends upon each situation. In some cases, properties will be acquired based on a negotiated purchase price. In others, life estates and trail or conservation easements may be used on an interim basis prior to full acquisition. In cases where no other alternatives are left, Dakota County will consider condemnation as a last resort, in accordance with stated policy.”

The master plan calls for a total revamping of Spring Lake Park Reserve, including a new boat launch, the houseboats at the harbor, winter trails and rental cabins, among other things.

Right now, it’s not possible to move from one side of the park to the other without crossing private land. These actions will change that, giving the county the last three pieces it needs to have the park be contiguous.

Having seen the plan, Gunter Drews said he’s not surprised the county is jumping at the chance to acquire his family’s land.

“We’ve been in their dreams for about 30 years,” Drews said. “We got the marina. We got the spring. That’s why they want it. We’re like the only spot that would be an awesome spot for a boat ramp. They’ve been salivating over this property.”

Nov. 5, 2013

The matter really changed for the Drews, they said, when they went to the Nov. 5, 2013, meeting of the Dakota County Board of Commissioners.

Heading into that meeting, they said they were prepared to let about 1.4 of their acres go to the county. They had reservations about that, as their private setting would all of a sudden become public, but they were prepared.

At that meeting, though, the commissioners went into a closed session. They emerged and voted to take the entire 10.4 acre parcel.

The Drews’ attorney asked the board to table their vote so the family could have some discussions with the county, but the board took its vote to pass the measure.

“There’s a great need for this,” commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said at the meeting. “We do need to move forward. The board has come to the conclusion that it is time to move forward. This is a needed piece of property in order to complete our trail in the Spring Lake Park area and to provide the access to the park that our master plan has envisioned for decades. We’re just coming to the head now. It’s time to move forward.”

Nancy Drews then spoke to the board.

“This is totally ridiculous,” she said. “I’m totally ashamed of you. I can’t believe how long I’ve worked with you. You’ve lied to us this entire time. This is horrible.”