Houle family can’t persuade Columbus to deny rezoning

Connexus to build substation on land once designated for RIM

Editor’s Note: The backstory on Brown’s Preserve Wildlife Management Area can be found in a Forest Lake Times article published the week of Oct. 27, 2011.

Jennifer Mevissen
Staff Writer

The Columbus City Council has approved a request to rezone approximately 80 acres from Rural Residential to Light Industrial use despite objections from descendants of the family which donated the land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 23 years ago to be secured for public hunting and wildlife habitat.

David Sederholm, grandson to Forest Lake resident Henry Houle, told the Columbus City Council at a Jan. 25 meeting there is a movement in process to negate the sale of what was known as Brown’s Preserve Wildlife Management Area from the DNR to Rice Creek Watershed District. He advised that no further action be taken until the issue has been resolved.

“It’s more or less a personal matter,” he said.

Last month, city council members unanimously approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance. They tabled action in November 2011 pending completion of the Metropolitan Council’s review of the comprehensive plan.

“This land was never intended to be commercialized,” Sederholm arguged, noting the property was to be protected by the Reinvest in Minnesota program.

City Attorney Bill Griffith advised the Columbus council to consider the application that was before them. Councilman Jessie Messina was absent from the meeting.

City Administrator Elizabeth Mursko explained that the zoning doesn’t affect the WMA.

“This is the first step of development,” said James Sederholm, son-in-law to Houle. “This is not a good piece of property to do this on…we’re gonna try to get it back from the Rice Creek Watershed District,” James added.

He explained that although the land was set aside for public purpose, ‘No Trespassing’ signs have now been installed.

The RCWD has agreed to sell 1.4 acres to Connexus Energy to construct a 12.47/7.2kV substation in the northeast corner of the southeast quarter of Section 25, Township 32, Range 22.

Mayor Dave Povolny said Connexus’ transformer is needed to give Columbus additional electricity.

“That’s what this power provides,” he said.

In addition, the property was intended for the RCWD to use to fix drainage ditches. The Rice Creek Watershed District is located primarily in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties, with a small portion in Hennepin County. The legal boundary of the RCWD encompasses approximately 186 square miles of urban and rural land with portions in 28 cities and townships: Arden Hills, Birchwood Village, Blaine, Centerville, Circle Pines, Columbia Heights, Columbus, Dellwood, Falcon Heights, Forest Lake, Fridley, Grant, Hugo, Lauderdale, Lexington, Lino Lakes, Mahtomedi, May Township, Mounds View, New Brighton, Roseville, Scandia, Shoreview, Spring Lake Park, Saint Anthony, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township and Willernie.

Griffith said if the transaction goes through, there will be a permanent conservation easement on essentially all of the property, except for the substation portion.

The question of whether hunting will be allowed the city cannot say, he noted.

“The board of directors has not made any decision on the future activities,” said Phil Belfiori, RCWD administrator.

He said they have inked a purchase agreement with Connexus Energy of around $110,000 but have not closed on the property yet. The ditch repair work is scheduled to begin this fall and will continue into next year. The wetland restoration project will improve the water quality and vegetation in the area, Belfiori said.

“They are turning a profit on the land being donated,” said Daniel Houle, Henry’s son.

He was the individual who brought the RIM program to the attention of his parents and family.

“I feel responsible for part of this problem,” Daniel said in a later interview.

He has taken up a letter writing campaign to the DNR and elected officials in an effort to gain some satisfaction.

“Our family just feels that we’ve been let down,” Daniel said. “Others may not even be aware their donations aren’t considered sacred,” he added.

Henry Houle was not aware that the DNR sold the 80 acres to the watershed district until last year when he was told by a friend that the land had been posted and hunting was no longer allowed.