David Pergande was biking on Washington County 18 last fall when he noticed a prime piece of real estate for sale just north of Afton’s Old Village.
The nearly $1 million property — 31 acres in all — is home to part of the Valley Creek trout stream, wetlands, a pond, forests, wildlife and wildflowers.
Pergande, a self-described “cranky old guy” from Lake St. Croix Beach, got on the phone and started making calls. He called June Mathiowetz, senior planner at Washington County, at least five times, starting on Sept. 30. Also on his list: Katie Bloome, executive director of the Belwin Conservancy; Afton Mayor Bill Palmquist and Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel.
“I called everyone I could think of,” Pergande said. “I knew this land had to be protected. It’s just such a beautiful piece of property. I did not want to see it become another McMansion.”
Pergande’s persistence paid off. Officials in June signed a purchase agreement for the land, which will become a new conservation-area park with public hiking trails. It is slated to open to the public in the summer of 2022.
The project — which has a $1.3 million price tag — is a joint venture among Belwin, Afton, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Washington County. A permanent conservation easement has been placed on the land, which features otter, beaver and muskrat; ducks, geese, pelicans and swans; songbirds such as northern orioles and eastern towhees; and wildflowers such as blue flag iris and hepatica.
The timing of the sale of the property at 2938 St. Croix Trail S. couldn’t have been better, Bloome said. She and other Belwin officials were already meeting with Afton officials regarding two city-owned parcels to the north — 25 acres of land the city purchased to house Afton’s new community septic system.
“We had been meeting to discuss how we could work together to preserve the natural areas and potentially open it up as a park or hiking area,” Bloome said. “Belwin has the expertise to care for the land and restore healthy habitat. Could we use that expertise and also the city land, which is so close to downtown Afton, to have something great together?”
Five acres of that city-owned land will be protected by conservation easements and host a segment of trail that will be maintained by Belwin, she said. In addition, portions of three Belwin-owned parcels to the south, another five acres, also will host portions of public trails.
“Over the next few years, we will be working to create a 41-acre preserve open to the public, less than a mile from downtown Afton,” Bloome said.
Washington County is contributing $507,500 to the project and will hold the 31-acre conservation easement; Afton will contribute about nine acres in a conservation-easement area, provide trail access and pay for the demolition of the buildings on the property, management plans and an archaeological survey if needed; and Belwin will contribute $157,500, own and manage the natural resources of the 31-acre parcel and provide public access to a trail extending through all 41 acres of land.
The state of Minnesota contributed $290,000 to the project through funding from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, Bloome said.
Washington County funds for the project came from the county’s Land and Water Legacy program — a bond referendum passed by Washington County voters in 2006 authorizing up to $20 million in taxes to be raised and spent on parks, land preservation and water protection.
“The voters mandated, through that referendum, to start protecting some of those properties, and citizens are stepping up and bringing tips to us and alerting us to various parcels that they feel are worthy,” Kriesel said. “There’s a lot of community support for these projects.”
INVESTING IN NATURE
The Land and Water Legacy program has protected more than 900 acres in Washington County, and $12.6 million in funds have been expended, said Mathiowetz, who administers the program for the county.
“I feel really fortunate to live in Minnesota because we as a state and as communities like Washington County have decided to invest in our natural resources, particularly in protecting the land,” Bloome said. “That land, once it’s gone, it’s really hard to get it back.”
Palmquist praised city, county, state and Belwin officials for moving quickly to protect the land.
“It was a home run,” he said. “We’ll be tying all of this open space together. It’s going to be a beautiful place. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of land.”
The land will be open to hikers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Whether trout fishermen will be allowed to fish on the property has yet to be determined. “That’s the question I’m getting asked a lot,” Bloome said. “We’re considering both the importance of access and the importance of keeping that stream healthy.”
Pergande, 57, a retired Minneapolis Fire Department captain, said he hopes one day to fish in the trout stream he helped protect. The crystal-clear stream flows southeasterly through the property for 750 feet to the St. Croix River; it stays open all year because it is spring-fed.
“There’s so little access to a trout stream here, I thought, ‘Let’s get ’er done.’ I was the pot stirrer,” he said.
Pergande said he is grateful to all the city, county, state and Belwin officials who took his calls and took him seriously.
“I never married, and I don’t have kids. Maybe this will be my legacy,” he said. “Once in a while, a cranky old guy gets something done.”