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Plans for Wegdahl park slowly move ahead

MONTEVIDEO -- Slowly, surely, and not without controversy, Chippewa County's second county park is taking shape.

The latest step was taken last week when on a 3-2 vote, the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners initiated eminent domain proceedings to acquire a small parcel of property within the park's boundaries.

The approximate 1.4-acre site is owned by Larry Fultz, 61. He was sentenced in August 2007 to 35 months in prison for a felony drug sale conviction in Chippewa County; he was placed on supervised release on Aug. 5, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

He has rebuffed repeated attempts by the county to negotiate the sale of the property, according to discussions at the meeting of the County Board.

The county has been developing a 20-acre site along the Minnesota River in the community of Wegdahl as a park. The land had been acquired by the county as part of a flood mitigation program. County employees and volunteers have removed years of debris and trash from the site.

County workers have also used heavy equipment to develop an access road and campsite loop. The county plans to use its own employees and equipment to eventually develop 18 tent camping sites, three group camping sites, and parking and picnic areas, according to Scott Williams, land and resource management director.

Commissioners Jim Dahlvang, Mark Dahl and chairman Gene Van Binsbergen voted to initiate the eminent domain proceedings -- the process a government entity uses to take private land for a public purpose. Commissioners Jeffrey Lopez and Kenneth Koenen voted no.

Lopez said he opposes spending funds on legal fees to acquire the property through eminent domain when there was a possibility that the property could be forfeited by failure to pay taxes. He also said that significant development could continue on the park absent ownership of the 1.4-acre parcel.

Commissioner Koenen said he is opposed to condemnation to acquire property and didn't want the county to end its long-standing record of not using it.

County records show that a total of $350 in back taxes are owed on the two parcels that comprise the 1.4-acre site; they would be forfeited if not paid by 2011 and 2012, according to Jon Clauson, county auditor and treasurer.

Assistant County Attorney John Sellner said legal costs for eminent domain acquisition could range from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on how the property owner responds to the actions.

Commissioners Dahlvang and Dahl pointed to the futile efforts to engage the landowner in negotiations. Chairman Van Binsbergen noted that the delinquent taxes could be no more than a shell game on the part of an uncooperative landowner. They said they hoped that a sale could still be negotiated, but felt it was important to move ahead on the project.

The county's hands have been tied and development of the park essentially stymied for three years due to the squabble with the property owner, according to Dahlvang.

The property is located on land slightly higher in elevation than the other areas of the park, and consequently is identified as the site where restrooms would be located.

An abandoned trailer once sat on the site. It burned and the charred debris and frame were removed by the county as part of a cleanup in the area.

Once developed, the park would offer opportunities for tent camping, fishing, picnicking and recreational activities focused on the Minnesota River, according to the plans for it.

In 2005, the county had rejected $162,000 in grant funds to develop a regional park in Wegdahl. The commissioners have since decided to move ahead on a scaled-down version of the park without grant funds.

Its location provides access to the paved, recreational trail connecting Montevideo and Wegdahl. An effort to acquire property along the Twin Cities and Western rail line and connect the trail to Granite Falls is currently in litigation.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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