Six against one. Such was the tenor of a public forum on the Mississippi Dunes project May 19, as five local residents spoke in favor of turning a defunct Grey Cloud Island golf course into a nature park, while a local property developer urged the Council to reconsider its position. With the Council refusing to break its ‘honest broker’ poker face upon prodding for a sign of agreement from one in favor of the nature park, agenda item 13a about which the commenters spoke related to a housing development and/or park on the old Mississippi Dunes Golf Course, out of use for three years. The property in question on Grey Cloud Island consists of 180 total acres with 2,300 feet of shoreline, along with 238 acres of adjacent scientific and natural areas managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
In the end, the Cottage Grove Council entered into workshop closed to the public and meant to give direction to City staff. Prior to the workshop, however, the Council heard an earful on the matter earlier in the regular meeting.
Beginning the regular May 19 meeting with the reading an obligatory statement prior to entering upon business, Mayor Myron Bailey said that while Governor Tim Walz had lifted the mask mandate, there were chairs set up with a video and audio feed just outside Council chambers. Additionally, the City continued to work on remote participation options and City staff was following social distancing protocols at meetings.
“Please visit the City’s website, www.cottagegrovemn. com. Hover over the dropdown menu, and click on ‘public meetings,’” the Mayor read. “You’ll find instructions for additional viewing and participation for tonight’s meeting.” And with that, it was into the meeting proper! Following the Pledge and Roll Call, it was Open Forum. First up was Sarah Werz of Grospoint Avenue South.
“My name is Sarah Werz,” she said, thanking the Council for the opportunity to speak. “I want to share how important the Mississippi Dunes property is to my family, how we envision my family and the community being able to enjoy this space, as well as my thoughts on housing there,” she said.
Buying her first home with her husband in Cottage Grove thirteen years ago, Werz shared additionally that they had had family in the area her entire life.
“So it’s home for us,” she said. There was more though.
“We love to explore the outdoors and explore nature parks throughout the metro,” she said. “Having a place nearly in our backyard to really explore and further our love for the river, would be incredible,” as well as a reason to stay in the area. Werz then shifted into a more broad-based appeal.
“Having a large public park and/or nature area adjacent to the river would be a huge draw for people to our community, both within and outside of it,” she said. With the City stating that river access was a priority, the launch included in current housing development plans didn’t “include the acreage for a large park that would have the amenities for recreation,” she said. The bottom line?
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“Fishing piers and trails and picnic tables, won’t matter, if there isn’t enough land preserved to protect the fish, native plants, and the animals and insects that live there,” she said. The City of Cottage Grove already had parks to play on, but Werz had additional thoughts as well.
“Let’s make this a destination park,” she said of the Mississippi Dunes area, with preserving nature a way to make the planned homes “true luxury homes” that allowed for preserving the river’s natural beauty. Next up to speak on the river and Mississippi Dunes behalf was Colleen O’Connor-Toberman, River Corridor Director with Friends of the Mississippi River out of St. Paul, with an internet presence at www.fmr. org. O’Connor-Toberman shared her brief thoughts on the matter.
“Friends of the Mississippi River sent you a longer letter regarding Mississippi Dunes yesterday,” she told the city, saying that the “overwhelming sentiment of both public and commissioners at a prior Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission meeting in the City of Cottage Grove was that the 15-to-20-acre park under consideration May 19 was “too small,” and also that it “won’t include the space or amenities to serve the entire city.”
Acknowledging that the current property owner’s plan was for development, O’Connor-Toberman told the Council that she urged the City Council “to use your power and responsibility as city leaders to guide that planning process,” ensuring in part “a much larger park at the site.”
In addition, the DNR, Washington County, Friends of the Mississippi, and private sources had expressed interest in purchasing land for use as a park or open space,” the land then being given to the city.
“Few communities get that opportunity, and I urge you to do everything in your power to pursue it,” she said, emphasizing that, “it’s very rare,” for such an opportunity to present itself.
As for a next step, O’Connor-Toberman called for a bigger community feedback role this summer as planning progresses. Next to speak was developer Eric Wandersee, who set forth the vision and benefits to the city of allowing development “Hello Mayor and City Council. My name is Eric Wandersee. I am a local builder and real estate professional,” he said, saying that he had been working with city workers and appreciated their time and effort. As to the proposed development at the site, it would be “roughly about 39 lots, about 1.5 acres each,” Wandersee said, saying that at present Cottage Grove residents “had to go with a national builder and didn’t have the opportunity to build the home they really want.” In contrast, a proposed Mississippi Dunes development would allow residents to upgrade their homes without leaving the area, while smaller local builders could also build for the community.
“We want to use all local excavation, sewer, road, and tradesmen, on this project,” he said. “Our goal is to build Cottage Grove both economically and create $250,000 to $300,000 in tax revenue annually for the City. Unfortunately, we have come to a roadblock,” he said. Among the roadblocks were expectations that Wandersee pave 100 and Li-High, “which is over two miles of city roads that I would be responsible for,” he said, along with $135,000 in park dedication fees, $180,000 in inspection fees, $25,000 in permit fees, and $600,000 for a sewer and water runoff fee. The last fee was the one that Wandersee was asking the Council to reconsider.
“I’m working with a water solutions expert team,” he said. “The HOA would be responsible to maintain the stormwater and sewer water ponds” from this, making unnecessary the storm basins that the city would build with the $600,000 in fees. The city fee structure put lot cost at $38,000 a lot, whereas a normal rural lot would cost $10,000. This added cost was an obstacle, as Wandersee made known.
“I kindly and respectfully ask the city to reconsider this fee,” Wandersee said of the sewer fees. “I am open and willing to work with the city,” he said, also asking if the city needed anything else of him. Next to speak on the Mississippi Dunes Area was area resident Eleanor Clancy, who admitted that with 40 years in the area she had “strong feelings” about the project.
“This is just a brief summary of the letter I sent to Colleen and Zack from the May 3rd meeting,” Clancy said, then going on.
“The ideas for a recreational center are endless for the Mississippi Dunes,” she said of her letter to Friends of the Mississippi. “The obvious, of course, is picnic tables, grills, and rain shelters. Many towns have community centers whereas Cottage Grove does not.” Clancy went on to say that “the clubhouse could be used for a community center,” with upstairs rooms used for small private parties. With Cottage Grove growing, there was a need for public space for family get-togethers and other things, she said.
Clancy also brought up winter sports, including cross country skiing. Next to speak was Grey Cloud Island resident Adam Grams.
“I just started thinking of the future, like what’s the world going to look like in 100 years, what’s Cottage Grove going to look like in 100 years?” he said, saying that he thought Cottage Grove needed an adult park in addition to those for children. “Something that is a real destination place for the area,” he said, adding that he thought “putting a large development there is the wrong way to go.” Following Grams with comment on the Mississippi Dunes project was environmental scientist and Cottage Grove resident Carla Inderriden.
“All of you have heard from me several times in the last few days,” she said in introduction, adding that “I’m very passionate about this issue, as you all well know.”
An environmental scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Inderriden stated that she saw a unique area.
“I know soils, I know ecosystems, and I know how rare this opportunity is,” she said. “Probably along the entire Mississippi, from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.
Going on to say it would be an “atrocity” to see the land in question “go anywhere but into park,” Inderriden said they were both economic and ecological reasons to take the park route, then going into specifics.
“There are major cultural and historical aspects to this property as well…that we do not have in this community and we will not have in this community if we do not do something with this property,” she said. As part of a golf course defunct for three years, Inderriden said the property in question was different from a park planned for Grey Cloud Island, the latter which would be highly developed.
“This is a nature-based park that butts up directly against a scientific and natural area that has been managed by the Minnesota DNR since the 1980s,” she said. “It has all the trails already there with the cart paths, and it has the clubhouse, which could easily be transformed into an economic center.”
Getting told by Mayor Bailey that she was over the time limit, Inderriden said she didn’t know that she had one, asking for another minute, which was granted. In short, there were “plenty of opportunities to make money” on the project without turning it into a housing development. That included income for the property owner, she said. “I want you to understand that this property is NOT for housing. This property shall not be housing, because it is awful for it in a million different ways…,” Inderriden closed out her arguments.
“Ok, thank you,” Mayor Bailey said in reply. “All right, is there anyone else who wants to speak on open forum?” As it turned out, there was, with Grey Cloud Island resident Michael Weekman, who also spoke briefly.
“I just wanted to jump in and echo some of Miss Inderriden’s points and Adam Gram’s,” he said.
“Do we have a solid understanding of what is going to happen or what is the impact on local residents that already reside at this location?” Weekman asked, noting three proposals at the Parks and Rec meeting, with the Council to give City staff guidance at its meeting May 19. “It was hard to tell how far west these plans were going to stretch,” Weekman said. “What is the planned effect?” Mayor Bailey then officially closed the open forum and said the city could get the information to Mr. Weekman.
Having heard the seven public commenters each make their case, the Council then moved into adoption of the Agenda, the meeting going on for over three hours.