U mulls uses for rural land

by Joe Carlson

Minnesota farmland is often the battleground between the rural tradition and suburban encroachment. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than on the University’s 12-square-mile Rosemount property in Dakota County.
Recently, the Board of Regents stirred controversy with a preliminary proposal to construct two golf courses on a corner of the property for research and education in landscape ecology and turf management.
The 7,529-acre Rosemount property, which is located in central Dakota county 30 miles south of Minneapolis, was acquired by the University on Aug. 1, 1947. Formerly a World War II munitions plant, the land was obtained from the federal government on the condition that it be used for educational purposes for 30 years.
Just less than half of this land, or 3,182 acres, currently makes up the Rosemount Agricultural Experiment Station, which is managed by the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences. The College of Veterinary Medicine also has facilities on this portion of the land.
The remaining 4,347 acres are under the jurisdiction of the University Real Estate Office. Some of this land is leased to tenants, including the police department, the U.S. Navy and a small airplane flying club. The land is also used by numerous University departments for file and equipment storage.
One of the major advantages of owning such a large, unused plot of land is that it provides a diverse array of terrains for different agriculture experiments.
“It makes (research) easier when you have that flexibility,” Walter said.
For example, forage, which is used as food for domestic animals, requires deep soil to grow properly. Normally, researchers would need to survey available farmland with no guarantee that the proper soil would be accessible.
But on Rosemount’s varied terrain, large numbers of experiments can be conducted in a small area. This enables more efficient and accurate research.
Now the University wants to break Rosemount up, Walter said, which reflects its sentiment that urban use of farmland is more important than farming.
This is something that experimental agriculture at the University has seen before.
When the University was originally granted land during the Lincoln administration, Walter said, a small plot of land on the East Bank campus was used for agricultural research. This farmland was soon overtaken by the expanding community around it, so the research was moved to what was then called the Farm Campus in St. Paul. There, too, it was soon overcrowded and agriculture was forced out by urban interests. This time the research was moved to the Rosemount property.
Now, rising property values are putting pressure on the University to find ways to use the land for purposes other than agricultural research.
“Can we manage a block of property that won’t be crowded out by urbanization in 50 or 100 years?” Walter said.
But Ann O’Loughlin, Community Coordinator for the University, insists that the University is maintaining its commitment to agricultural research and education.
“It is important to be good stewards of that land and to evaluate whether you have a need for an academic purpose to hold onto property, and if not evaluate whether or not it should be sold,” O’Loughlin said.
“The University is presently in the process of determining academic needs. Beyond that, nothing else is happening,” O’Loughlin said.
But Brian DeVore, a staff member of the Land Stewardship Program, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, disagrees.
“The excuse they use is that all these plans are preliminary but it’s kind of interesting that all these plans are drawn up on maps. They have a lot of documentation for something so preliminary,” DeVore said.
O’Loughlin said that because of the sophistication of computer-generated maps, some may have mistaken the preliminary ideas contained in the maps for definite plans presented at meetings of the Metropolitan Council.
“Part of the problem with maps these days is they look so professional coming off computers that people think they’re plans. They’re not,” O’Loughlin said. “They’re thought-provoking kinds of documents to get people thinking … it would be very premature to call that a plan.”
O’Loughlin said that after the University has a firm idea of what it wants to do, it will present those ideas to the public.
But DeVore said the community might not be as involved as it should be.
“Sometimes if the public isn’t kept up to date on things along the line, by the time they do come out with a proposal, the proposal is more of a final plan. The public needs to have input on that proposal itself,” DeVore said.
The University has hired a consulting firm, BRW, Inc., to put together a Master Development Plan for Rosemount. The plan will consider the University’s options in Rosemount and weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages of different land-use programs.
The plan was originally scheduled to be released in October, but has been pushed back until January 1997.
O’Loughlin said the plan was delayed because the University needed more time to decide how much land it requires for education.
“These things need to be entered into carefully,” O’Loughlin said.
Rosemount Advisory Council member Tom Burt said, “BRW has done a good job to represent their client, the (University) Real Estate Office, but they have not done a good job of meeting the needs of the community that surrounds it.”
Rosemount resident Theodore Northwick said he has received little information about plans for the property.
“We don’t hear about it until it’s all over,” he said.
Resistance to University and city planning is nothing new to Dakota County residents.
The Rosemount property became the proposed site in 1987 for a new international airport extension. But the idea was never realized, partly because of resident resistance.
An attempt by the University in 1989 to sell land to Dakota County for a waste-to-energy garbage incinerator was opposed by residents in Dakota County Citizens Against Burning. The action was later blocked by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The University has also had difficulties with pollution on the land, most notably the nine-year cleanup effort of a federal Superfund site on the Rosemount property.
Problems started in 1984, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discovered that a portion of the Rosemount property had been polluted with lead and polychlorinated biphenyls.
It was later determined that three companies that leased sections of the Rosemount property, George’s Used Equipment, Porter Electric and Machine and U.S. Transformer, had been dumping transformer oil into the soil since the 1950s.
The polluted area was soon declared a Superfund site because the pollution was deemed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to pose a significant threat to the health of local residents.
It had taken more than $11.2 million dollars by 1993 to remove the toxins from more than 6,000 cubic yards of polluted soil.
O’Loughlin said Rosemount residents’ wariness of the University because of past incidents are legitimate issues.
“That’s why it’s terribly important that we be very open about how this process is going to work,” O’Loughlin said.