Agricultural site is grounds for a debate

Joe Carlson

Editor’s note: This is part three in a three-part series about the University’s response to urban sprawl in the Twin Cities.

Seen from a car, the paved roads lined with neat suburban lawns and cookie-cutter houses give way to gravel and acres of barren land.
From the air, the vast expanse of the University’s Rosemount Agricultural Experiment Station looks out of place. Sprawling suburbs define the edges of the property where University researchers grow corn and other experimental crops on the remains of a World War II munitions plant.
The Rosemount site may someday be used for radically different purposes than it is today. If it is sold to private interests, as suggested, Rosemount might become home to as many as 30,000 new suburban residents. The now largely unused land could be divided into fertilized green lawns and golf courses with experimental turf.
Or maybe the rows of corn will just stay where they are.
There are many conflicting opinions regarding Rosemount’s future. Some see it as a place from which the University could glean some much-needed cash by selling an asset it hasn’t used in almost 50 years. But others see a prime opportunity for the University to take a stand against the sprawling urban growth that continues to consume farmland around the edges of the Twin Cities.
Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that it will have lasting effects for the nearby south suburbs and the University.
“It sits as a wedge between the rural and urban parts of the city,” said Richard Bolan, the director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. “It’s a very critical site.”
Rosemount is located about 30 minutes south of the St. Paul campus in central Dakota County.
“The University’s Rosemount property is large enough to, in some ways, influence the development pattern of the entire area,” said Richard A. Levins, a professor of applied economics who is on leave to coordinate long-term planning at Rosemount.
Today, the University is in the process of determining how much of the 7,529 acres it needs for educational and storage purposes. BRW Inc., a private development firm, was hired in June to assess the University’s options for the land and determine how much should be sold.
BRW was initially directed to create a land use options report by October for presentation to the Board of Regents. But that date has been pushed back to January, in part because of community outcry against BRW’s initial plans.
Originally, 5,000 acres were identified as potential land for sprawling residential development.
“BRW had talked of two-and-a-half to five acre lots — that’s the most appalling use of land,” said George Boody, executive director of the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization concerned with urban sprawl and suburban land use.
Boody said that if suburban growth is allowed to encroach upon Rosemount, it will drain needed financial resources away from the urban core. “If you have to build new infrastructure, that takes public money, and then there’s less public money to invest in urban areas,” he said.
Boody said the money could otherwise be used for schools and police.
But Levins said the proposal for residential development was quickly reconsidered after the flurry of negative reaction from the community.
Rosemount residents “didn’t see it as compatible with the rural character of the area,” Levins said.
The University has since slowed the pace it was taking in its formal planning. “We need to identify more clearly and specifically what our academic needs are, and then after that we need to move forward,” said C. Eugene Allen, provost for professional studies at the University.
The University has identified at least one need: golf.
The Turf and Grounds Research and Education Center — which includes plans for two 18-hole golf courses to aid turf education and research efforts for the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences — is currently the most formalized option suggested for Rosemount.
If approved, the research center will be constructed in a hilly southern corner of the property and will be funded by the Minnesota Golf Association. The center is expected to earn at least $300,000 annually for the University.
But some question the University’s motives in constructing the golf courses. “Golf courses, in our culture, tend to be magnets for development,” Bolan said.
However, Levins said that there are no plans to develop the land around the turf center.
“We are in no way going to use these golf courses to enhance real estate value,” Levins said. He said that the center, if built, will be in the worst possible place for residential development.
Mike Martin, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, would like the property to remain basically as it is today, as an agricultural experiment station.
“That’s the reason we were given the land to begin with,” he said.
Martin cites federal and state statutes from the 1880s as reasons for the University to hold onto the land. “The law is quite unambiguous as to what we are supposed to do,” he said.
A number of alternatives to selling the land to developers have been discussed, including a new local K-12 school and a transfer site for goods transported by railroad. Another possibility is to expand the University’s use of the property to the point where it would become another campus.
“What I’m hoping is that it will work out to be a sort of satellite campus of St. Paul,” Levins said.
The new campus could serve as an expansion of the agricultural facilities already present on the St. Paul campus.
“One issue we face on the St. Paul campus is urban encroachment,” he said. This urban growth threatens the agricultural college’s capacity to educate its students. “It’s essential that our students have access to land and animals if they are going to learn about agriculture.”
Levins said that the possibility of Rosemount becoming an agricultural satellite campus of St. Paul is fairly likely.
“Our advisory council is fairly in support of things going in that direction,” he said.
But Martin said that there may be considerable resistance to the idea. “The University has been very reluctant to commit to additional campuses since the closing of Waseca,” he said.
The University closed its Waseca campus in 1992 because of budget cuts.
Although a number of options are on the table for Rosemount, no decision is likely in the immediate future, in part because gathering community feedback is a slow process. And feedback is the one thing that the University is certain it needs in Rosemount.
“We cannot do this with an absence of community involvement,” Allen said.
But until a final decision is reached, the tarred suburban avenues leading into Rosemount will continue to give way to dusty rural roads lost in rows of grain and acres of empty land.