Green Acres

Inver Grove Heights tries to turn one of its last farms into a subdivision

In 1964 Dr. John J. Malensek purchased 49 acres of land in Inver Grove Heights. The price was $600 an acre. At the time, the parcel of land, just east of Robert Street and north of 80th Street, was surrounded by farms. "I thought, 'What the hell am I gonna do with a farm?'" recalls Malensek.

For the first 10 years, the medical doctor raised cattle on the land. Back then, the primary headache was dealing with snowmobilers and hunters who had little respect for the notion of private property. Malensek recalls having to collect one of his cows from Highway 55 after a snowmobiler cut through his fence. The police gave him a ticket for failing to control the wayward animal.

In 1980, Malensek added another 35 acres to the Dakota County farm. By then, with suburban subdivisions spreading across the county, the purchase price had risen to $5,000 an acre. (Malensek subsequently gave this parcel to his daughter.)

In the ensuing years, the area around his property has continued to develop rapidly. New housing projects and convenience stores seem to sprout daily from the prairie. All the other farmers in the area eventually sold off their land to developers, reaping hefty paydays.

But Malensek continues to work the land, cultivating roughly 40 acres of corn and another 10 or so of oats. "I had an offer for $3 million," he says. "My attorney says I could get more. But he works on commission."

Though Malensek turned down a considerable windfall, the city seems less willing to let altruism and a pastoral streak determine the future. And so the gentleman farmer has recently been talking to his lawyer once again, this time to fight off the city's designs to turn his green space into some green for the city's property tax rolls.

As he recounts the history of the place on a recent weekday afternoon, the 76-year-old retired doctor is guiding a tractor through the rolling hills of his farm. Wild turkeys feast on day-old bread that Malensek sets out for them. Oak and maple trees, some more than two centuries old, are changing from green to yellow or red. Acres of corn stalks, which he sells to a cattle farmer, are almost ready to be harvested.

"This is beautiful," marvels Malensek as he guides the tractor, which he bought new in 1967, slowly down a ravine. He wears dirty brown work pants, a nylon jacket, and the kind of super-size glasses that look like they might pick up radio signals from north of the border. "It'd just be a shame to level this. We've got a bunch of people who are just gung ho to develop every single acre of land in the county."

In order to preserve the parcel, Malensek is attempting to have all but eight acres of the property, including the plot owned by his daughter, set up as a "conservation easement." This would mean that they'd retain ownership of the property, but would be permanently prohibited from building on it. Malensek envisions it being a semi-public space, where citizens could stop off for a stroll through the woods.

There's precious little natural land like the Malensek property remaining around the Twin Cities. According to the Metropolitan Council, just 6 percent of the seven-county metro area remains in its natural state. And Embrace Open Space, a conservation advocacy group spearheaded by the McKnight Foundation, reports that natural areas are being swallowed up at a rate of 60 acres a day. Put another way, a green parcel of land the size of the Mall of America is disappearing from the Twin Cities every 24 hours.

Inver Grove Heights is certainly not immune to this rapid erosion of natural areas. "If we don't start saving some of our open space, we're going to look like New York City or something," says City Council member Rosemary Piekarski Krech.

In 2002, Dakota County voters passed a referendum dedicating $20 million toward conservation projects. Under the program, property owners can receive a subsidy in return for ceding all future development rights. According to Al Singer, manager of the Farmland and Natural Area Program, property owners can receive up to $5,000 an acre to participate--a fraction of what they could get on the open market. "This is a mulitmillion-dollar donation," says Singer.

Malensek applied to have his land enrolled in the Dakota County conservation program last year and was accepted in January. But since then the project has stalled because of resistance from the city of Inver Grove Heights. When the conservation proposal was presented to the City Council in February, several members--most notably Bill Klein and Dennis Madden--balked at the notion of having the property permanently taken off the tax rolls. (Neither Klein nor Madden returned calls seeking comment for this story.)

"The only one that's goddamn against me is the city," Malensek spits.

The doctor's property is in a part of the city that's deemed the "northwest expansion area." As the name implies, Inver Grove Heights intends to open up the area for further development. In order to facilitate this, however, the city will need to install sewer and water lines, an expensive proposition. And the city wants Malensek to foot a large chunk of the bill.

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