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City seeks grant for two acres of Birch Island Woods

City seeks grant for two acres of Birch Island Woods
By Lyn Jerde, Community Editor, Eden Prairie Sun Current
March, 10, 2005

The Eden Prairie City Council has authorized applying for a grant to help pay for the city’s acquisition of two of the four available acres in Birch Island Woods.

If the purchase succeeds, said Parks and Recreation Director Bob Lambert, it could accomplish two goals.

It could put the city one step closer to completing the acquisition and preservation of the woods – of which the city now owns about 31 acres.

And, it could possibly satisfy federal requirements for a land exchange that would clear the way for private development of another city-owned park property, the Cummins-Grill Homestead on Pioneer Trail.

The council gave its unanimous approval March 1 for Lambert to begin the process of applying for a grant of about $212,000 through the Department of Natural Resources’ Natural and Scenic Area Grant Program.

A public hearing on the grant application will be conducted at the council’s March 15 meeting.

There are four acres on the southwest edge of Birch Island Woods that are available for sale – and that might be sold to developers if the city doesn’t acquire them.

The assessed value of the full four-acre parcel is about $850,000.

But two cousins who share ownership of the parcel – Terry and Dwight Picha – have agreed to sell the land in separate two-acre parcels, Lambert said. It would be Dwight Picha’s half that the city would seek to acquire, he said – presumably at half the price of the full parcel, or $425,000.

If the city gets the DNR grant, and combines it with private contributions of about $100,000, that would bring the city’s share of the purchase price down to about $112,000, Lambert said.

“But we have to hustle,” he told the council, noting that the application deadline is March 31.

The city has, in recent years, hit several setbacks in its effort to buy the remaining four acres of Birch Island Woods.

A $22.5 million parks referendum, defeated in May 2004, would have included $1 million for open spaces acquisition – a portion of which could have been applied to the Birch Island Woods purchase.

In the summer of 2004, the city learned that it had not received a $400,000 DNR grant to help pay for the acquisition.

And, at the end of September, the city’s six-month exclusive option to buy the full four-acre parcel expired. The city had acquired that option in April 2004, at a cost of $2,800.

Lambert said he believes the city’s chances of getting the DNR grant this time are greater, because the requested amount is less.

Councilmember Brad Aho asked whether the two acres in Birch Island Woods would be sufficient to satisfy a land swap that would free the Cummins-Grill Homestead from restrictions that resulted from its purchase with a federal Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON) grant.

Lambert said federal officials, in considering such an exchange, would be looking for equivalent value, not necessarily equivalent acreage. Another consideration would be the newly purchased land’s usage for open spaces.

When the city acquired the Cummins-Grill House and the land around it in 1976, a condition of the LAWCON grant that helped pay for it required keeping the property as open space or parkland.

Such a restriction precludes a private owner or renter from adapting the house for commercial uses.

But, if the city gets the two Birch Island Woods acres, it could then apply to the federal government to exchange that land for the Cummins land, thus freeing the house and surrounding area from LAWCON restrictions.

The city can’t take steps to do that, however, until it actually gets the Birch Island Woods land, Lambert said.

And, if the purchase of the two acres is successful now, he said, it’s possible that the city could buy the other two acres later.

On the advice of City Attorney Ric Rosow, the City Council worded its approval of the grant application in a way that does not commit the city to a future purchase of the remaining two acres at market price.

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