EAGAN (AP) -- Dakota County voters are considering a plan to protect open space from rapidly encroaching suburbs. The plan would spend $20 million over 10 years to buy and preserve as much as 10,000 acres of farmland and natural areas.
At the Diamond T Riding Stable in Eagan, where new homes stand on two sides, owner Carol Thomas says raising taxes to save open space is a plan whose time has come.
"Everybody is sort of up to us," said Thomas, who saddles more than 100 horses a day at the 30-year-old stables, which also abut a regional park. "The more the city stretches out, the fewer and fewer places there are to ride."
But Thomas is not predicting victory in the Nov. 5 referendum just yet. Taxpayers need to agree that the idea is worth the price. The effort will have to overcome strong no-new-tax sentiments in Dakota County's congested suburbs and rural landscape.
Owners of a median-valued home, now priced at $176,500, would face a $17 annual property tax increase. Those with $300,000 homes would pay nearly $30 more each year.
Harland Hiemstra, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, said the annual tax increase amounts to "the price of a pizza" for a typical taxpayer.
More importantly, according to supporters, the proposal to sell $20 million in bonds faces no organized opposition with just three weeks until voters go to the polls.
But a similar plan -- the first such attempt in Minnesota -- failed in Washington County two years ago, largely because of opposition to its cost.
With Dakota County growing by 9,000 people a year, supporters hope to capitalize on concerns about the rush of building that seems to sprout new gas stations, strip shopping malls and grocery stores almost daily.
The bonding plan's chances will hinge on how many taxpayers agree with Steve Kreitz, a Rosemount investment adviser who is backing the plan. Kreitz also supports Tim Pawlenty, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and House majority leader from Eagan who has pledged no new taxes if elected.
"I will swallow hard and take the tax increase gladly," said Kreitz, who last week spent an evening at a Rosemount VFW hall helping stuff envelopes for the campaign. "It's exceedingly important to get over this idea of no new taxes on anything.
"People have got to realize -- Republicans, Democrats, Greens or whatever -- the environment affects us all," he said.
Dakota County officials stress the program will be voluntary for landowners, but have identified 78,000 acres of privately owned farmland and natural areas as a high priority for preservation, including 42,000 of the county's 220,000 acres of farmland.
In most cases, the county would acquire property outright or obtain a permanent easement that, while not changing ownership of the land, would restrict its use. Priority will be given to land that, among other things, is adjacent to other protected property, is threatened by impending development or has "significant ecological qualities"
Supporters won a key victory when the Dakota County Farm Bureau agreed not to oppose the bond issue. In Washington County, the Farm Bureau's opposition to a similar plan two years ago was widely seen as contributing to its defeat.
"We want to save farmland, but we're not sure this is the correct program we want to use," said Rozetta Hallcock, who presides over the 1,837-member Dakota County organization. Farm Bureau members, she said, were particularly opposed to the county's insistence that easements be permanent.
But Hallcock lives in rural Sciota Township -- the part of Dakota County farthest from the metro area -- and can see the steady march of urban development.
"We get calls every week for our land," said Hallcock, whose family owns 145 acres in the township. "We're so metro now."
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