Houlton farm project takes a step forward

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Efforts to turn the Houlton Farm in Elk River into a publicly owned conservation area are moving forward.

Representatives from The Trust for Public Land and the city of Elk River met Tuesday with the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council in St. Paul. The Council voted to add the farm to The Trust for Public Land’s parcel list, paving the way for the nonprofit organization to use grant funds to buy the farm.

The Trust for Public Land’s hope is to buy the 335-acre farm and turn it over to the city of Elk River for use as a conservation area open to public hunting and fishing.

The Elk River City Council has endorsed the idea. In a letter to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Mayor John Dietz said protection of the farm site “has been a priority of the city for many years given its high natural resource value and sensitive shoreline.”

Bob McGillivray, senior project manager with The Trust for Public Land, said they have a purchase agreement with the owners of the farm. He said they hope to close on the sale this fall and then convey the land to the city.

The farm has been appraised at $3.105 million, he said.

McGillivray said the farm is one of the largest parcels of Mississippi River frontage in the greater Twin Cities metro area still in private ownership.

The farm is excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife, including deer, turkeys and bald eagles, and is a great smallmouth bass fishery, he said.

“It truly is a gem,” he said.

The site has 1.75 miles of Mississippi River frontage and more than a mile of Elk River frontage, according to Dave Anderson of the Elk River Parks and Recreation Commission. The farm is located where the two rivers meet, west of downtown by the Orono Dam.

McGillivray, Anderson and Michael Hecker, Elk River’s parks and recreation director, all attended the meeting with the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, held at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Anderson said the meeting was “really interesting and really fun.”

The Trust for Public Land, meanwhile, has grant money available from another project that didn’t work out. The funding is from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which is one of four funds created by the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The amendment was approved by voters and established a sales tax that is channeled into four funds including the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

If the Houlton Farm deal goes through and the farm becomes a conservation area, it is envisioned as a natural area for wildlife habitat. Unpaved trails and a primitive boat landing for canoes and fishing boats are among the amenities that could be part of the site.

McGillivray had said earlier that the farm could be used for many other purposes in addition to hunting, including hiking, walking, birding, fishing and wildlife observation.