Joy, betrayal, now vindication
Emotions run full gamut for Houle family at Brown’s Preserve in Columbus
Twenty-five years ago there was a sense of joy and satisfaction as Henry and Elaine Houle signed over 80 acres of land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources under the Reinvest In Minnesota land conservation program. It was a move the Houles believed would preserve the land as a permanent wildlife habitat area and hunting grounds for the public.
There was also no way to escape the hurt and betrayal in the eyes of the Forest Lake senior citizen couple in 2011 when they learned after the fact that the DNR had sold what had become Brown’s Preserve Wildlife Management Area to the Rice Creek Watershed District.
There was also no underestimating the fight that the Houle’s son, Dan, and other family members, wildlife organizations and officials would wage in an attempt to correct what they felt was a wrong.
It didn’t happen overnight, but after countless hours of communication with DNR officials, meetings with legislators and applying pressure to shed light on the situation, the Houles believe they have reached a resolution that will help others in the RIM program avoid a similar fate.
“We walked away feeling justified,” Dan Houle said this week. After nearly a year of addressing the issue, Gov. Mark Dayton last year signed legislation that creates a bill of rights protecting the wishes of landowners at the time RIM land is transferred to the state of Minnesota and the DNR.
The action came too late, Dan Houle said, to reverse the sale of Brown’s Preserve but it established a process whereby no future RIM parcels can be sold by the DNR unless the land donor has granted prior approval through a “Yes” or “No” check off at the time the land is sold and the deed is recorded at the county.
It was this oversight, Dan Houle says, that allowed the DNR to sell the Houle parcel and others like it. And that is understandable, Houle said.
As time goes on and needs change, there may be occasions where better purposes may be needed for a parcel. At least now, Houle says, the former landowner will have a say in how that land is used.
Dan Houle, who lives in Ely, said the change in state statute would not have been possible without the lead of former State Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, who rallied to the side of the Houles. His partner in the House, Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, also supported the effort.
But the lobbying effort, Dan Houle said, also included the strong voice of Pheasants Forever, a wildlife group that jumped to aid the Houles after learning of the situation in 2011.
While the Houle family is satisfied with the end result, the matter could have been avoided with better communication among state, regional, local officials and the public, Dan Houle said.
“No one gave them a call,” Dan Houle said of his parents as the sale process unfolded over several years prior to 2011. “That hurt.”
After learning of the situation, Vandeveer, who did not seek reelection last fall, authored legislation that resulted in the so-called bill of rights. The legislation created the fail-safe that now requires notification by the state of any desire by the state to sell land received through the RIM program.
Initial bill language that would have provided compensation to the Houles was removed, Dan Houle said. “That just went away,” he added, pointing to the huge precedent and potential financial liability that might land on the state’s doorstep.
The leadership of Vandeveer and Dettmer was key, Houle said. “They were huge,” he said.
The efforts by all paid off, Houle said. “We strengthened the program so this will never happen again,” Houle said. “Hopefully no other Minnesota family will get hurt.”
As a culmination to the long struggle, Hank and Elaine Houle were honored last month at the 30th annual National Pheasants Forever convention at the Minneapolis Convention Center. They were presented with a wooden plaque from Pheasants Forever saluting them for their work. The DNR presented the couple with a framed transcript of the legislation signed by Gov. Dayton.
When the Houles signed over the land to the DNR in 1988, it involved the donation of 40 acres and the sale of 40 at the 1988 market price of $22,000. The DNR posted a sign designating the wildlife management area as Brown’s Preserve. The site was named in memory of a well-loved family hunting dog.
Houle bought the 80 acres in the early 1960s. He grew up on a farm two miles south of the parcel in what was then Centerville Township. As a boy he hunted pheasants and ducks on the property.
As the Forest Lake area continued to grow and develop with more residential homes, Houle decided to move the land to the RIM program as a way to preserve open land for wildlife and public hunting.
In July of 1988, local and state officials gathered at the site to celebrate the creation of Brown’s Preserve under the RIM program
The Rice Creek Watershed District became interested in the property in the mid-2000s in order to complete a judicial ditch improvement project. Rules governing the DNR prevented the work under state ownership. The 80 acre parcel was sold to Rice Creek for $220,000, more than 10 times the price the DNR paid back in 1988.
Another factor that rankled the Houles was Rice Creek’s decision to sell a small section of the Brown’s Preserve land to Connexus Energy as a site for an area substation. The drainage improvements and the Connexus plans came with Columbus City Council approval.
The land swaps were all part of a larger regional effort by the DNR. When the new CR-83 (11th Avenue) bridge was completed two years ago in Forest Lake, Washington County paid the DNR some $600,000 for just under four acres of state-owned land on the west side of the new bridge. The land was necessary for the bridge right-of-way and drainage.
The DNR is expected to use its proceeds from the land sales to acquire parcels that will be attached to the Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area in Columbus.
The Houles now take comfort that in time the parcel that once again carries the Brown’s Preserve name will be opened to the public and wildlife habitat will be maintained. That will come down the road when the drainage project is completed and Connexus substation is built.