U-owned property spawns debate

Joe Carlson

Steam towers and concrete support beams from the ground on a University-owned tract of farmland in the southern suburb of Rosemount.
Few remember when and why the odd-looking structures were built, more than 50 years ago during World War II. Similarly, few recall how the federal government forced families from their farms to drive concrete into fertile soil.
Marie Jensen remembers. “Everybody was very much alarmed,” Jensen said. “People felt helpless and didn’t know which way to turn.”
Last year, Jensen, 78, was alarmed again when the University proposed new uses for the land, which included selling it to private residential developers.
Today, school administrators are drafting a letter to local residents to inform them of the University’s new-found intentions to keep the land within University hands.
Midway through the war, the U.S. government took 7,500 acres of land from family farmers to build a munitions plant, Jensen said. The government eventually reimbursed the farmers, but only after subsequent lawsuits.
“We didn’t think the government had that kind of power,” Jensen said. “We didn’t really feel threatened by the war.”
A “numbness” befell Rosemount when farmers were given six weeks to move from their farms in 1943, said Jensen, who was 23 at the time.
The government threat left many community members feeling powerless. That feeling would drive Jensen to participate in civic government on many levels, including the Rosemount Advisory Council.
The council, which is charged with voicing the concerns of the community, was a major factor in the University administration’s decision to rethink its pool of options for the land, said Mike Martin, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.
Martin said when local residents started voicing their concerns about the property, those concerns, in part, caused University officials to realize the land’s potential.
The property is a piece of undeveloped land bigger than St. Louis Park. It is a 45-minute car ride from the Twin Cities — a safe distance from urban pollution for dependable agricultural research and a convenient car ride from the University, Martin said.
“No other land-grant university has a piece of land of this size this close to the city,” Martin said.
The land is used mainly by the agriculture college for research on everything from crop yields to satellite-guided farming. The Department of Architecture and the College of Veterinary Medicine also have facilities scattered across the property.
The University uses less than half of the land for academic purposes. The rest has been leased out or sold to various groups, including the Dakota County Technical College, the Minneapolis Bomb Squad and Hmong farmers.
The excess of unused land caused the property to fall under the microscope of the University’s central administration as an unused asset that could be sold for much-needed cash.
The University hired an outside firm to come up with a list of the best possible uses for the land. One option, to sell the land to suburban developers, struck a resoundingly negative chord with the surrounding communities.
“The housing proposal did not sit well with the public,” said Dick Levins, coordinator for programming and planning for the agricultural experiment station.
Suddenly, tensions that had remained dormant for nearly 50 years began to trickle into public meetings. It became clear to Martin that a few local residents still harbored a bitterness toward the government and the University.
“They were all very, very bitter, even the people who were on the verge of quitting farming,” Jensen said. “There was an animosity, and there still is.”
However, Jensen’s fellow council member Richard Brand — who was 12 at the time the government took the land — did note that the original acquisition was for the good of the country.
“They didn’t say a lot because we were fighting the war,” Brand said. “At the time, it was the patriotic thing to do.”
Besides, he added, even if there was serious resentment in 1943, “time heals.”
Damaged goods
Midway into the war, the federal government decided the United States needed to build a munitions plant far from the coasts.
In the spring of 1943, 12,000 acres of land south of the Twin Cities were selected to become the site of a new facility to make arms. The farmers on the land were given six weeks to vacate before bulldozers came in and destroyed the area’s natural topography.
“Except for on the extreme southern property, there is not a tree on this property older than 50 years,” Levins said.
But the United States was already dropping atomic bombs on Japan by the time the plant was finished. The plant operated once, Jensen said, and that was to prove it was operational.
Government officials tore the plant down, but by that time farmers didn’t want the land back. The factory had left the property riddled with concrete and contaminated with lead.
So in 1947 the government sold the land to the University for agricultural research. The cost: $1.
Since then, the land has been used and misused in many ways. Over the years, University officials and members of the Legislature spent more than $14 million to clean up potentially dangerous pollution, said Fay Thompson, director of Department of Environmental Health and Safety at the University.
Two sites have been cleaned, Thompson said: one containing an organic solvent called chloroform and the other containing heavy metals from “recycled” batteries.
“Their idea of recycling was taking out the valuable metals and pouring the rest into the ground,” Levins said.
Current events
Under a cloud of fallout from the community’s protests over the proposed suburb, University administration has appointed a committee to determine the “academic needs of the property,” said Department of Architecture Dean Tom Fisher.
Fisher, co-chairman of the yet-informal committee, said the group of faculty members and administrators has to sort through proposals recently elicited from various University departments.
Plans include a proposal for the Turf and Grounds Research and Education Center. The facility would consist of an 18-hole golf course and a 9-hole course used for research, as well as facilities for education.
Although the plan has been criticized for being a golf course funded in part with public money, administrators stress the research aspect as the more important function of the facility. The courses will be used, among other things, to research different types and amounts of fertilizers.
For the time being, no other plans will happen on the Rosemount property, said Clint Hewitt, associate vice president of master planning at the University. After evaluating every option, the Rosemount administrative committee will translate the proposals into land and funding assignments and evaluate their viability.
“I hope they continue to be very slow,” Jensen said. “I hope that they look very, very carefully at each thing they do.”