By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
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By CP Staff
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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.
In July, the city came up with an estimate of exactly how much Malensek would be assessed for the utilities expansion: $22,800 per acre. In other words, Malensek would have to pay some $1.8 million in assessments for sewer and water services that he'll never actually use.
Not surprisingly, he isn't willing to pony up the money. Malensek believes that the city is essentially trying to blackmail him into developing the property so that they can benefit from the increase in property taxes. He argues that he should only be assessed for utilities on the eight acres that won't be set aside in a conservation easement.
"They need money," Malensek says. "I'm their piggy bank. If I develop it, they get lots of money."
The city has now backed off from the $22,800 figure and is in the process of calculating a different assessment. "I don't have a better figure for you," says City Administrator James Willis. "Whatever the numbers are, it's a lot of money."
He insists that the city is continuing to work with Malensek and county officials in hopes of coming to a solution that is agreeable to everyone. "We're all trying to do due diligence on this thing," he says. "I think we'll continue to talk. I don't see this as something that's in jeopardy."
This is farfrom the first time that Malensek has tussled with the city of Inver Grove Heights. He's been doing sporadic battle with the municipality for more than a decade. Back in 1990, the city wanted his land for a municipal golf course that was supposedly going to provide a permanent salve for the city's financial problems.
"That golf course was going to take care of everything," recalls City Council member Piekarski Krech, who at the time was mayor. "That was the big sell: We're never going to have financial problems again."
When Malensek refused to sell, the city threatened to seize his property through eminent domain. The doctor responded by hiring the high-power law firm of Faegre & Benson and digging in his heels. The city ultimately relented. His property is now surrounded by the 27-hole Inver Wood Golf Course. "That's where my trouble started," Malensek says.
In the wake of the golf-course dispute, the disgruntled property owner ran for the City Council. He attacked the sitting council members for spending money on frivolous projects such as the golf course and ignoring pollution concerns, particularly those stemming from the city's Pine Bend landfill.
"I am not a politician," Malensek declared in a mailing at the time, "but I feel I am more qualified than the present councilmen who have been in office for 10 years and helped to make Inver Grove Heights the cesspool of the metropolitan area."
The neophyte politician narrowly lost.
With the City Council blocking his attempt to enjoin his property from future development, Malensek is once again trying to force the issue through electoral politics. Last week, he had 5,000 flyers printed criticizing council member Klein and asking voters to turn him out of office. The flyer was distributed this week to residents inside copies of the South-West Review newspaper.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Malensek vows to keep the land that he's occupied for 40 years out of the hands of developers. "They think they're gonna scare me into doing something stupid," he says. "It's the principle of the thing. It's not about money--because I'm not gonna get any if I win."