SACRED HEART -- Landowner opposition should be considered when state funds are being sought to acquire property to develop an off-highway vehicle park, say opponents of a proposed project in Renville County.
The landowners told Gregg Soupir, district trails and park supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer, and Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, that none of those owning property bordering the proposed 272-acre site in Sacred Heart Township in the Minnesota River Valley had been contacted or provided information as the project was initially being considered by township and county officials in late November and December of 2011.
"I got wind of it while in town eating lunch or something,'' said Gene Fenske, who farms near the site in Redwood County. He was among a dozen landowners and residents who conducted a meeting to voice their concerns this week at a farm near the proposed park.
The landowners charge that the application for funding to develop the park was rushed forward in the weeks before Christmas without their participation. "All of a sudden it is in front of the county commissioners with their hair on fire 'it has to be done right now or we are going to lose this funding' and so the county commissioners made a decision without any of these people having an opportunity to say a word about it,'' said Tom Kalahar, of Olivia.
Soupir said that the DNR encourages all grant applicants to inform neighbors and be as transparent as possible. He noted that the Sacred Heart Township Board of Supervisors conducted a public meeting to discuss the project.
He refuted charges that the DNR worked behind the scenes to promote the park. The DNR has an obligation to assist user groups to prepare grant applications for recreational projects, but it does not play an advocacy role, he said.
"All of these grant programs are designed so that these local units of government are making the decision, yea or nay, up or down. They are not something the DNR goes out and pushes or forces on anybody,'' Soupir said.
The Renville County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 last month to apply for Legacy funding to acquire land for the proposed park. The Legacy Amendment approved by voters in 2008 increased the sales tax to provide money for arts, conservation and the outdoors.
At this point the application for Legacy funds is among many being considered in a competitive process for approximately $7.4 million in available funds.
DNR staff will be involved in ranking the merits of the county's grant application, said Soupir. He noted that the landowners have made known their opposition to DNR officials.
It is estimated the overall project in Renville County would cost $1.3 million.
The park would be developed on an area that includes 38.9 acres of abandoned gravel pits that have not been reclaimed; another 31.3 acres where gravel mining is occurring; 106 acres of native grassland; and 62.6 acres of timber land, according to information presented at the meeting this week.
The landowners charge that the proposed site in the Minnesota River Valley is in direct conflict with the nature of the area. It is along the Minnesota Valley Scenic Byway, and is well-known for its historic sites and bucolic, river valley scenery.
"We are paying people to preserve the natural settings and then to allow something like that,'' said Lee Wierschem, one of the landowners expressing his frustrations.
"They need to sit down with us and find another spot for it,'' said Wierschem. "They won't listen.''
The landowners also charge that the site's remote location means that emergency medical care and law enforcement services will not be readily available at the site.
Its location also means it will provide very little economic benefit to Renville County, according to the landowners. Users are more apt to drive to Redwood Falls than Sacred Heart from the site if they are going to purchase goods or services.
The landowners said they have started a petition opposing the project, and have more than 300 signatures at this point. They are also considering legal action.
They intend to bring their concerns to the Renville County Board of Commissioners, but said they remain frustrated that the state would allow Legacy money to be used for a project such as this.
"You keep saying it's local, local, local, but you are the ones who are going to supply the big inflow of cash in order to make it happen,'' said Kalahar. "You have all the cards. The county commissioners, they're sitting there with nothing. If you give them the money, they are going to go forward and these people are going to get it in the end.''