Eagan Needs Luxury Homes

Tony Caponi's 60-acre suburban sculpture garden, where he has lived since 1949, could have a future as a permanent art park-- or another housing development

Just before he crosses to the park's other side, Caponi pauses in front of one of his most visceral, eye-catching works, "Pompeii," a 170-foot-long sculpture consisting of more than a dozen bronze panels of contorted bodies and skeletons placed horizontally into the ground. Taking its broader shape from the hillside in which it is embedded, the piece draws from the volcanic destruction of its namesake Italian city in 79 A.D. The outlines of bodies appear as if they are actually buried in mountain and volcanic ash.

"Pretare, the town I come from on the Adriatic coast of Italy, the word itself means 'place of rocks,'" he recalls. "It was at the foot of a mountain, Monte Votorre, which was a beautiful monument I woke up to every morning."

Caponi returned to the peasant village as an American soldier when he fought in World War II. The scene will serve as the climax in Caponi's new book, A Voice From the Mountains, to be published by Ruminator Press this fall. The autobiographical tale poetically describes Caponi's artistic and spiritual philosophy within the context of his Italian upbringing. "Once I returned to America, I eventually found the biggest hill I could find and made a home of it," Caponi says. "The only problem was that there were no rocks here, so I had to go to my neighbors' farms to dig some up." Caponi used those stones to build the first walls and sculptures on his land.

Back on a guided tour of the park, Caponi finally reaches the south side, which overlooks his latest major sculpture and an addition to the grounds--a circular, stone-and-brick, Greek-style amphitheater that has hosted performances since last year. In this handsomely groomed spot, Caponi reminisces about when he first began creating space for the park and shaping the land.

"When I started, all of this land was completely rough and untraversable. Now look at where we've come," he declaims, waving his hand before the smooth grassy bowl that encircles the amphitheater. "You know, back then I had only farmers for neighbors. They wouldn't believe how the place has changed!"

 

Caponi's marvel at the changing landscape could extend well beyond his 60 acres to the region in general. The town of Eagan, which has developed 94 percent of its available space and is Dakota County's most populous suburb, wasn't fully incorporated when Caponi moved in. The Caponis have always welcomed their new neighbors as they arrived, but the town's development boom has created some pressures on the park along the way. For years, the Caponis have warded off home developers nipping at their heels with million-dollar offers. The only ground Caponi has ever sold, in fact, has been for the development of Eagan city parks, which border his land on two sides and have kept it well protected.

Yet saying no to further development has increasingly become a challenge. A recent proposal taken up by a city task force would approve the purchase of land just north of Caponi's property for an 18-hole golf course and possibly adjacent lots for luxury homes. With this boom in the background, Caponi has been struggling to sell his park to a nonprofit organization that will maintain its artistic mission. In 1992, he even established a nonprofit park foundation, which now consists of ten board members, to raise funds that would go toward hiring help for the park's basic upkeep and administration.

One of Caponi's plans would have the foundation, as a legally independent body, purchase the park from its founder, while he remained separate from fundraising activities. Caponi is now offering to sell the park for solely the value of the land, which has been appraised at roughly $50,000 an acre (for a total of $3 million). Caponi would exclude the value of the work he has already put into the site, which he estimates to be worth $1 million, and he would continue to live and work at the park for free.)

After numerous discussions with the city and county, including a failed 1996 referendum that would have authorized funds for the city to buy part of the park, Caponi and the foundation were forced to turn to the state Legislature for a property-tax break. By the end of the 1998 session, both houses passed a special bill that allowed the Caponis to pay taxes at the agricultural instead of the residential rate for five years, thus saving them roughly $20,000 to $30,000 a year. The conditional tax break was supposed to give the Caponi Art Park Foundation time to raise enough funds to purchase the park, making it tax-exempt, while the Caponis continued their benevolent mission. (Not surprisingly, there's no designated tax bracket for individual residents who desire to share their enormous plot of land with the public for artistic purposes.)

Yet at the end of this tax labyrinth lies a possibly disastrous dead end: Four years have passed and the foundation is nowhere near acquiring enough funding to purchase the park from Caponi or to provide for its basic operating costs. If the foundation continues on this track for the next year, the Caponis will owe five years' worth of back taxes for the higher residential rate with interest, which could result in what Cheryl Caponi approximates to be a $200,000 bill.

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