Work continues on possible acquisition of farm for park

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Work is continuing to possibly turn a 335-acre riverfront farm in Elk River into a park.

The farm is located near the Orono Dam and has been in the Houlton family since the 1870s.

Steve Hobbs, Minnesota project director for The Conservation Fund, said they already have about a third of the money necessary to acquire the property and are assisting the city in seeking grant funding for the rest. If that effort is successful, the funding would be available in early 2014.

The Houlton Farm is located west of downtown and along the Mississippi River.
The Houlton Farm is located west of downtown and along the Mississippi River.

Hobbs and Tom Lewanski, Friends of the Mississippi River conservation director, discusssed the possible acquisition of the farm during an Elk River Parks and Recreation meeting Wednesday night. Members of the public also had a chance to ask questions.

Hobbs said The Conservation Fund is a national non-profit that helps government agencies and other non-profits acquire land.

The Friends of the Mississippi River is also interested in assisting the city. Lewanski told the parks commission that the Mississippi River is a migration corridor of international significance and the Houlton Farm “is your little piece of that larger puzzle.”

“It’s an incredible piece of property,” he said.

Hobbs, too, sees the farm as an “extraordinary” property and a golden opportunity to create a regional park. He said the Houltons have been great stewards of the land.

Two members of the Houlton family, brothers John and Bill Houlton, were at the meeting. John Houlton said they have had opportunities in the past to turn the farm into a housing development,  but the family hasn’t been interested in that. He said he’s excited about the possibility of a park there.

“This project will allow this piece of ground to essentially remain what it has always been, only better,” he said.

One of the barns on the farm is thought to be a Civil War-era horse barn that was used by the Army, according to Bill Houlton.

The city envisons the farm as a very passive recreation area, according to Elk River Park Planner Chris Leeseberg. Possible amenities could include hiking trails, a boat access to the river, a viewing platform overlooking the Mississippi and a vast expanse of prairie where crops are now grown. The property has frontage on both the Elk and Mississippi rivers.

If it were to become city-owned, the farm would be accessed from an entrance near the Orono Dam. There also would be pedestrian access to the farm from two nearby city parks – Bailey Point Nature Preserve and a small neighborhood park called Oxbow Park.