Riverfront farm as a park? Elk River looking into the possibilities

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

The Houlton property is outlined in red. It is located along the Elk and Mississippi rivers, near Orono Dam in Elk River.

A 315-acre farm along the Mississippi River in Elk River is for sale, and the Elk River City Council is interested in gathering more information about the possibility of buying it for park land.

The city staff had been approached by Dotseth Realty, inquiring if the city is interested in the Houlton farm. The farm is located near the Orono Dam.

Council members discussed the matter during a work session May 7 and agreed by consensus that the city staff should look into it further. No vote was taken.

“I don’t think it hurts to explore it,” said Council Member Jerry Gumphrey.

Bill Rakozy (left), an avid Mississippi River fisherman, gave Elk River Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hecker a tour of the Elk and Mississippi rivers on Tuesday. Here they are on the Elk River near the confluence with the Mississippi. Bailey Point is on the left.

“I think it’s worth looking at and at least see where it goes. Don’t spend a tremendous amount of staff time on it, but see what … you can come up with,” Mayor John Dietz told Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hecker and City Administrator Cal Portner.

Council Member Matt Westgaard said it’s a fantastic opportunity for the city, but the question is how to pay for it. Unfortunately, the opportunity to buy the land comes at a time when things are tough and the city’s park dedication fund is pretty severely depleted, he said.

But, he said it would be a great asset to have for the city and the council would be foolish not to explore possible options with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Minnesota Historical Society and any other entities that may be able to help the city secure it.

Elk River’s park dedication fund is typically the source tapped to buy park land, but that fund is dry. Its balance is zero, according to City Administrator Portner.

The park dedication fund is replenished as land develops, with developers either donating land or paying a fee of $3,712 per dwelling unit, $7,444 per acre of commercial property or $2,485 per acre of industrial property. But with the downturn in development in recent years, the flow of money into the fund has slowed to a trickle.

Hecker said the Houlton property’s assessed value is $1.4 million, but the list price is “considerably higher than that.”

The Houlton property as viewed from the Elk River.

A DNR grant is a possibility to help fund acquisition costs if the city were to decide to buy it.

“They mentioned there’s assistance … I’m hoping it’s large dollars,” Hecker told the City Council.

Hecker said probably the biggest asset the property offers is the opportunity for a trail along the Mississippi River. The farm has about 1.75 miles of river frontage. The city’s comprehensive park plan shows a future trail system along the Mississippi.

Rebecca Haug, who is the staff liaison to the Elk River Heritage Preservation Commission, said the Houlton farm has huge historical significance as well.

“There are old mill ruins still intact on the property. That type of tourism is increasing greatly,” she said.

Oxcart trail ruts can also still be seen, she said, and the farm is home to many bald eagle nests and the largest tree in Sherburne County.

“It does contain an island, which is pretty unique to be able to purchase an island on the Mississippi River,” Haug said.

Of the 315 acres of land, about 36 acres or 11 percent of the property sits outside the flood zone, according to Hecker.