Houlton farm gets second chance

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

A new grant possibility has emerged for the city of Elk River to acquire the Houlton farm.

The Houlton Farm is outlined in red.
The Houlton Farm is outlined in red.

The new player is The Trust for Public Land, which has grant funds available and has offered to seek approval to buy the farm and donate it to the city. The farm is located along the Mississippi and Elk rivers, west of downtown.

“That’s an asset that would be worth a little over $3 million,” said Bob McGillivray, senior project manager for The Trust for Public Land, who met with the Elk River City Council on Monday.

Under the terms of the deal, however, the 350-acre farm would not become a nature-preserve-type park as once envisioned. Rather, it would become a conservation area primarily for wildlife habitat and open to the public for hunting during the normal hunting seasons.

The Elk River City Council expressed some concern about that, but agreed by consensus during a work session Monday to move forward. The next step is to go before the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council on Aug. 5.

McGillivray outlined the details of the proposal during the council work session.

While the site would be open to public hunting, a 500-foot no hunting buffer from buildings would be required by state law, he said. Some private hunting has occurred on the farm in the past, he said.

The Houlton property from the Elk River.
The Houlton property from the Elk River.

The farm could be used for many other purposes in addition to hunting, he said, including hiking, walking, birding, fishing and wildlife observation.

“Many of these areas are used far more by the general public than by hunters,” McGillivray told the council.

He said existing farm roads on the property as well as existing gravel trails would be acceptable. Paved trails or paved parking lots would be problematic, he said.

The city would have to move or demolish an existing house. At least one of the other buildings on the property would also have to go, he said.

Signs designating historical points on the property, like oxcart trails, would likely be fine, he said. A small boat landing would also probably be acceptable, he said.

He said The Trust for Public Land does not have a written agreement with the farm’s ownership group. A representative for the owners, Jeff Dotseth of Dotseth and Associates Realty, was at the council meeting.

McGillivray said an appraisal is being done and The Trust for Public Land is willing to pay up to the appraised value for the farm, but won’t pay more than that.

The Trust for Public Land has grant money available from another project that didn’t work out, he said. The funding is from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. It’s one of four funds created by the 2008 Legacy Amendment, which was approved by voters and established a 25-year, 0.375 percent sales tax channeled into the four funds: Outdoor Heritage, Clean Water, Parks and Trails and Arts and Cultural Heritage. This particular pot of money is earmarked for protecting and improving wildlife habitat, he said.

Mayor John Dietz said he’s concerned about the hunting.

“God forbid anybody would get hurt,” he said. “I don’t think I would want private citizens out walking on this property when there’s people out there hunting.”

He said this scenario is not what he had envisioned for the farm.

Some other council members also had some concerns, but favored moving ahead.

Council Member Stewart Wilson said he believes hunters and others can successfully share the property and he is pleased there is another opportunity for the city to obtain the farm.

“It would be such a jewel for the community to have,” he said.

Dave Anderson of the Elk River Parks and Recreation Commission called it “a once in forever opportunity.”

Earlier a nonprofit entity called The Conservation Fund had worked with the city to get grant funding to purchase the farm for a park, but that grant fell through. That grant was also a product of the Legacy Amendment, but came from the Parks and Trails Fund, which is designed to acquire land for parks and trails.

About The Trust for Public Land

•The Trust for Public Land is a nonprofit, national land conservation organization.

•The organization was founded in 1972.

•It has about 300 employees around the United States. The Minnesota office is in St. Paul.

•The Trust for Public Land has conserved more than 3 million acres, of which 90,000 acres are in Minnesota. Close to home, it has helped Anoka County acquire the 258-acre Columbus Lake Conservation Area and 550 acres for the Cedar Creek Conservation Area on the Rum River.

Source: The Trust for Public Land