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City lets property option on land near woods expire

October 29, 2004 Eden Prairie News
By Stuart Sudak

Eden Prairie’s 195-day option to buy 4.04 acres of land next to Birch Island Woods expired on Oct. 19. During its meeting on the same day, the City Council agreed with a staff recommendation not to continue the option for another year. The owners of the property, two factions of the Picha family, were willing to extend the option for one year at a cost of $10,000 for the option and an increase in the property price from $800,000 to $850,000. The Picha families are also agreeable to sell the property to the city for $800,000 if it were to enter into a contract for deed before the end of the year.
The original purchase option, which went into effect in April, cost the city $2,800. The option cost was the price of the taxes on the property for this year.
However, Parks Director Bob Lambert emphasized the city has no money to pay for the land, and he is pessimistic raising such an amount is realistic. Still, council members agreed to review their options during a Nov. 9 workshop.
Originally, the city’s financial recipe for buying the four acres and then adding it to the 31-acre city-owned conservation area was using $200,000 from a spring parks referendum, a $400,000 matching state grants and $200,000 in private donations raised by a resident’s group called Friends of Birch Island Woods.
That was before the referendum failed and the city was unable to obtain a grant. As for raising private dollars, Lambert said there hasn’t been much progress.
“I don’t see any way that the city is going to be able to buy that additional land,” he said Tuesday. “And, quite frankly, if we had $800,000 that’s not the highest priority piece of parkland we have to acquire. So I just don’t see it in the cards. Not that I don’t think it would be nice. But realistically I don’t think it’s feasible.”

Jeff Strate, co-leader of the Friends of Birch Island Woods, remains optimistic, though. Strate has said the property is not only necessary to complete the conservation area and protect its environmental integrity, it also will ensure a much larger cluster of environmental, scenic and recreational resources. That includes the Picha Heritage Farm, which sits across Birch Island Road from the four acres and is owned by Terry Picha. “Sure we’re worried but we’re going to save that property,” he said Tuesday.According to Strate, there are still possibilities for getting public dollars to help pay for it. He thinks the main source could still come from a future parks referendum. Strate said he has been told by city officials that they would seriously consider placing a revised referendum on the ballot next November if the school referendum passes next week. Strate is confident the land will still be on the market then. He said one faction of the family, which includes Terry Picha, is “determined not to let it be developed.”

A second possibility, albeit Strate admits a “longshot,” could be the city’s matching grant proposal being revisited if Gov. Pawlenty calls a special legislative session sometime after the election. Strate hopes to have the group’s fundraising efforts going strong soon. He said they are almost ready to hire a professional firm to help with raising money. The group’s first fundraising effort for the woods since the option expired will be Friday’s free Haunted Woods Walk through Birch Island Woods starting at 6:30 p.m. During the event, “Keep it Going! Keep it Growing!” buttons will be for sale for the first time for $5 each. The buttons will be sold over the next year with proceeds helping the group with conservation projects, including the purchase of the four acres. “We’re all on board on this thing and I’m going to imagine the private sector is going to come up with quite a bit of money to save this,” he said.
Lambert, though, said the city had a slim chance to get the May 11 referendum passed, it had a slim chance to get a grant, and he thinks there is a slim chance to raise “significant funds” from the private sector. “I don’t have a problem being realistic and saying ‘You know what? Yeah, it was a slim chance and it didn’t happen, so let’s move on,’” he said. is Stuart Sudak’s e-mail address. He also can be reached at 345-6474.

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