Baxter City Council ponders initial ownership of proposed wildlife area
Proposals to acquire portions of acreage near Island Lake in the rural southwestern portions of Baxter have been floated, rejected or accepted at varying terms since 2015. The area features valuable wetlands and topographical features near the Mississippi River, Island Lake and other water-rich environments.
BAXTER — Members of the Baxter City Council mulled Tuesday, Feb. 4, whether to take up temporary management of 440 acres north and west of Island Lake and south of Mapleton Road in southwest Baxter.
The move could place the city in a good position for future developments and protection of a valuable natural resource in the area, Community Development Director Josh Doty said, but he also noted the decision could put Baxter on the hook in terms of tax burden, management of a water-rich zone, as well as the possible construction of trails, road and sewer/water infrastructure for adjoining properties. There are plans for a Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail corridor to traverse the acreage in question.
By taking up ownership of the acreage — instead, say, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — it enables later permanent control of the property by the city in an arrangement that best benefits the area, state agencies, nonprofit organizations and the city of Baxter. If that arrangement can’t be found, Doty said, the city can opt out of future responsibilities and decline ownership going forward.
“The 2015 comp plan recognized the unique natural resources and the unique land area that is in that part of the city,” Doty said. “Work should be done for conservation planning in the future.”
Taking up temporary management of the 440 acres would enable the city to complete a study of the area to define lands and funding sources needed for potential future roads, utilities and trails that factor into long-term plans, Doty said, which could lead to a beneficial arrangement between the agency and the city to establish a wildlife management area.
Previous proposals raised concerns the wildlife management area may curtail some efforts to implement sewer and water infrastructure, particularly for 16 neighboring properties. Doty noted the DNR would like to create a solid and cohesive “block,” but can compromise with the city to find an arrangement that allows protected lands, as well as intersecting easements for utilities and roadways.
Mayor Darrel Olson expressed optimism in the new proposal.
“It looks like it’s made some progress since we’ve last seriously talked about this,” Olson said. “Maybe there’s some flexibility that we didn't have before. My concern has always been that these are some heavy-duty decisions and I don’t want to be rushed into that. Now, it looks like we have some time.”
While temporary ownership gives the city more room to establish a framework that protects its future plans, Doty said, there’s no guarantees a wildlife management area couldn’t hinder the ability of the city to plan and implement changes in the future. A comprehensive study of the topographical features, engineering plans, and surrounding areas is necessary, he said.
If a the council opts to make a formal vote on the matter, city staffers noted it would likely occur at the next council meeting Feb. 18.
In the last few years, the area in southwest rural Baxter has factored heavily in council discussions.
In mid-2018, the city received a state grant to help fund the acquisition of 200 acres at Mississippi River Overlook. The city executed a cooperative agreement with The Conservation Fund to act as a transaction agent for negotiation with the land owner PotlachDeltic corporation and the fund has been working on the acquisition with the owner since that time.
Later that year, in October, the council accepted a donation of 120 acres of land known as Island Lake from the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs to the city of Baxter.
In mid-2019, the council voted to accept an additional 60 acres of land between the Mississippi Overlook property and Island Lake.
On Nov. 5, staff updated the council that PotlatchDeltic would not accept the appraised value of the 200 acre Mississippi River Overlook property. Staff also presented to the city council a counter proposal of about 1,600 acres of land from the PotlatchDeltic portfolio. Of the 1,600 acres, 679 acres are located in the city of Baxter south of Mapleton Road. The land owner provided feedback that a land deal with the proposal of larger acreage would be of interest to them.
Council member Mark Cross was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .