Maplewood acquires Fish Creek land


Fish Creek cuts through a property in south Maplewood that the city recently acquired, after pursuing the land for more than 20 years. (Courtesy of the city of Maplewood)

Across the Mississippi River from South St. Paul, the Fish Creek waterfall is among the treasures to behold on the 70-acre future preserve. Maplewood recently acquired 62 acres of the land surrounding the creek near the river bluff and is gathering funds to permanently protect the remain eight.

Residents sought 70-acre “crown jewel” for more than 20 years

For around 30 years, Carolyn Peterson pushed for the purchase of an expanse of land in south Maplewood recently acquired by the city, even though she still hasn’t seen most of it.

She contracted polio at a young age, leaving her disabled, she said. When Peterson was introduced to the 70-acre Fish Creek parcel decades ago, it was too difficult for her to trek through parts of the rugged property.

Until then, the Maplewood resident didn’t know land within city limits had a waterfall and a shallow creek where people could easily photograph large fish. She didn’t know of the spectacular view that reminded her of growing up in Wisconsin’s “bluff country.”

“I was still walking, but it was with crutches, so I was limited as to where I could walk,” said Peterson, now in her 80s. “I was able to walk up on top of the bluff, because the land was more level.
The view from up there is just spectacular.”

Now using a wheelchair, Peterson, a Parks and Recreation Commission member for 19 years who also worked with open-space committees to obtain the site, has only been able to marvel at the bulk of the land in photographs.

In the photos, she could see the rugged and beautiful terrain near the creek. She could see something worth fighting for.

“I was not able to able to get down there, but the pictures really told the story,” she said. “When we saw what was there, it just seemed so important that it be saved.”

Peterson was just one of many dedicated Maplewood residents who were integral in the city’s recent acquisition of most of the property south of Carver Road. Restoration is underway, the beginning of a master plan to revive what was formerly farmland.

“Now knowing that the Fish Creek land will always be preserved is just a good feeling,” Peterson said.

The ‘heart’ of the area greenway

Virginia Gaynor, Maplewood’s natural resources coordinator, said that the parcel fills in the so-called “donut hole” that Ramsey County open space surrounds on three sides.

The newly-acquired land and the county’s nearly 150 acres make up the heart of a greenway that extends from the Mississippi River in St. Paul to Maplewood to Carver Park in Woodbury.

A 2012 master plan details desired features for the preserve. They include: parking lots on Henry Lane and near Point Douglas Road, rustic and paved trails and benches at vista locations.

Although city staffers have done a lot of behind-the-scenes heavy-lifting in order to protect the land, Gaynor said a group of citizens inspired the effort.

“Twenty years ago, it was really residents who saw the importance of (preserving the land),” she said.  “This time too, it was residents who came knocking at the doors of City Hall.”

The city and several partners have contributed enough money to permanently protect 62 acres.  Up to $340,000 is needed to save the remaining eight acres along Carver Avenue. The city is hoping money will be set aside in the state’s bonding bill for the remaining funding.

Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik helped in the attempt to snag state funds while she was serving on the Minnesota House of Representatives. She said it was more difficult to have money allocated then, but the request may get a better reception during the current legislative session.

A ‘crown jewel’

Being a resident of south Maplewood, Slawik has witnessed the value of the Fish Creek property from her own yard.

“I can see both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul,” Slawik said. “We’re up high. It creates this really interesting topography that should be preserved.”

Slawik noted that American-Indian artifacts are strewn about the site.

Adding intangible value to the project, the community -- individuals, organizations, corporations and the city -- worked together persistently to make something happen.

“When a community can have a shared purpose and a shared project, it becomes a lot more meaningful,” she said. “It’s kind of the crown jewel of Maplewood to have such a beautiful, pristine piece of land within our boundaries.”

Ginny Yingling thought she had discovered Fish Creek. She wandered onto the property around the time she moved to south Maplewood 20 years ago.

“I started walking up the creek and couldn’t believe how beautiful it is there,” she said. “It’s hard to believe you’re still within the city boundaries.”

She thought it was an “undiscovered gem,” filled with deer, turkey running in the woods and raptors soaring above.

Then, she got involved with a city environmental group. She found out residents had already been advocating for the purchase of the land for years.

She said, “The big thing was that people had a vision, and they didn’t let it go.”

Decades of trying

Maplewood has had its eye on the land for decades. In 1994, Maplewood’s Open Space Committee helped pass a referendum, leading to the purchase of green spaces throughout the city.

But not Fish Creek. It was in the hands of a private owner who would not sell.

A development company, CoPar, bought the land in 2006. CoPar had submitted plans to build 191 homes there, but Maplewood rejected it, saying the lots were too small.

The development company sued Maplewood, calling the city’s ruling unreasonable. The two entities settled out of court in 2008.

CoPar resubmitted the plans with fewer parcels, but weren’t able to build them. The developer went bankrupt in the wake of the real-estate market crash.

Maplewood had another chance at the Fish Creek property, but experienced another setback: It didn’t have the money.

Getting close to the deadline of being able to purchase it, a national organization stepped in.

The Conservation Fund bought the 70 acres in 2011 for $1.9 million, which was around one-fourth of past asking prices. The nonprofit dedicated to preserving land and wildlife was holding the land until the city could gather enough funds to purchase it.

Clint Miller, the organization’s Upper Midwest field representative, said the group stays in the background, assisting conservation efforts and offering its real-estate expertise in complicated land purchases, like Fish Creek’s.

“For us, this is just what we do,” he said, although many at a recent celebration of the acquisition couldn’t say enough about his and the organization’s help.

With other project expenses, the effort will cost close to $2.2 million. 

Contributors have included: Maplewood ($425,000), Ramsey County ($425,000), the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, the Department of Natural Resources (in the form of a $500,000 grant), the 3M Corporation and the Friends of the Mississippi River (also the designated fiscal agent for the proceeds).

Restoration

As the fate of the property wavered, so did its maintenance.

Invasive plant species, ATV tracks and trash from illegal garbage dumpers have marred the land. Partiers are known to hang out there, too, and large grass fires have cropped up, according to Yingling. 

“(Nearby residents are) out there all the time picking up trash,” Yingling said. “It gets pretty torn up by people. It’s going to take a lot of work, figuring out how we are going to get these people to respect those lands.”

A private partner has already started fixing some issues, according to Gaynor.

Great River Greening, a nonprofit that creates partnerships to conserve Minnesota land and water, removed buckthorn and planted trees, she said.

District Energy, an energy service focused on conservation, chipped up a pile of buckthorn in January, and hauled 27 semi-trailer loads of wood chips to its facility to be burned for energy, according to Gaynor.

Gaynor noted that there are no maintained hiking trails, yet, but the site is open to the public.

Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the land, and barricades were set up near the entrance this winter to deter them.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
 

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