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Township meets to discuss park idea

At the Monday, Jan. 14 meeting of the Somerset Township's Parks and Recreation committee, more than 18 residents attended to voice their concerns about the potential purchase of the St. Croix National Golf Course.

"They have another buyer that will possibly close this month," Denise Gunderson, chair of the Park Committee, said. "Funding was an issue."

The 210+ acre property was up for auction late last year. The owner, Wendell Pittenger, operates four other golf courses in Minnesota.

"For his own personal reasons, he wants to get out of it," Gunderson said at the meeting. "He doesn't want to wait for the Township to raise the money."

The whole issue came up at the Jan.2 Township meeting. John Gunther, Park Committee member, presented a proposal to buy the golf course property for $2.2 million, with a $100,000 non-refundable up front payment. He, along with the Park Board, suggested the property and buildings be used for walking trails, cross-country skiing, etc.

"This property was evaluated May 19, 2007 at $6 million," Gunther said at the Jan. 2 meeting. "If you look at the value, it's a tremendous opportunity."

The presentation prompted many people to debate the rationale of buying an ailing golf course. Gunderson reiterated that there were many possibilities for the property.

"Ballfields, trails, playing fields, hunting, possible town hall - these can be part of the concept plan," Gunderson said.

According to a Parks and Recreation survey sent to all Somerset Township residents in July 2006, "paved hiking/walking trails" were the most desired. Biking trails were next; soccer fields and baseball fields came in 10th and 11th.

"Our surveys showed there is an overwhelming cry for walking trails," Ginny Gaynor, Committee member, said.

Many residents at the Jan. 14 meeting voiced their concerns about the suitability of the St. Croix National property for ballfields.

"If we can't afford ballfields for our kids, how are we going to afford buying land to watch birds?" one resident asked.

"You guys have tunnel vision," a resident told the Board. "It's beautiful piece of land, but it's not flat for fields and doesn't fulfill our needs."

"I don't see the Township buying it now," another resident said. "It'd be better to buy a flat piece of land so it'd be easier to excavate."

"We had talked about a concept plan to see what is feasible on that particular property," Gunderson answered. "We won't own that property today. But if it becomes available in the future, is this something we as a community would want? Right now I'm hearing you don't want it."

The parks and recreation committee said they had a duty to look at every opportunity to meet the expressed needs of the community. Although they knew raising the money for this particular property would be difficult, Gunderson said if the community really wanted to move forward with it, the committee would do their best to push for it to happen.

"We were creating a park plan," Gunderson said. "When we were going over the draft, this property came up out of the blue and made us wonder if we needed to expand our plan. If it came upon us again, would we want to have an open area like this?"

Another resident asked what happened with the West Wisconsin Land Trust. Gunderson said at the Jan. 2 meeting that the organization had helped other communities purchase park property, and they had expressed an interest in this situation.

"He came to get more information," Gunderson said. "They wanted to know if the community was interested."

"The group is good at helping people get grants for a preservation project, but they do not have a pot of money themselves," Bill Lawson, committee member, said.

Another resident asked about some undeveloped property that the Township already owns. The 55 acres at 45th and 108th Avenue was previously an old dump site, now it is owned jointly by the Village and Township.

"We have to decide what to do with it," Gunderson said. "It's hilly in the southeast corner; would be great for walking paths. However there are some restrictions with it being an old dump site - we wouldn't be able to have water there."

Many residents asked that the committee develop a list of potential properties, get financing set for them and then present their options to the Board for approval. The committee members said it could take up to a year to get a grant approval and land appraisals.

"We've been compiling a list for ballfields," Gaynor said. "Maybe we should start one for open land too."

With a show of hands, half of those in attendance, including Board members, indicated they would like to continue to investigate open land potential for the community. The committee said they will take their park plan to the Town Board for the February meeting.

"I'm glad it's been a buzz in town," Gunderson said about the whole issue.

"This is the most people we've had attend a meeting," Lawson agreed. "It comes down to getting people involved."