A scenic but privately held 42-foot waterfall just west of North Mankato will become public property after the Nicollet County Board narrowly opted to purchase it for $330,000.

The Nicollet County Board approved an agreement on a 3-2 vote to lease a three-acre piece of land around Minnemishinona Falls for one year and then purchase it, hopefully with government grants and private funding obtained in upcoming months.

County officials decline to call the new land a “park”, saying their planning for the site is in the earliest stages. A parking lot is anticipated, along with trails to overlooks, fencing and possibly a cantilevered viewing area that would project outward from the cliffs on either side of the waterfall.

The vote came after the board toured the area near the Judson Bottom Road three miles west of North Mankato on a near-perfect Indian-summer day. The falls were flowing after recent rains, something a local opponent of the purchase said is uncommon. Adjacent landowner Charles Smith said the falls were nonexistent for three or four months this year.

“They’re getting a dry falls most of the time,” Smith said.

But even opponents of the county purchase conceded that the falls are attractive.

“I think this is a beautiful place,” said Commissioner Jack Kolars. “It may be worth a million bucks.”

Kolars, however, doubted that the three acres were worth even the $330,000 purchase price. He said an appraisal two years ago put the land’s value at $227,000 and he doesn’t trust more recent appraisals putting it at the higher amount.

Kolars also questioned the need to act now.

“I just don’t believe this falls is going anyplace,” Kolars said. “... It’s going to be there for the next 10,000 years. It may be up for sale again.”

Bob McGillivray, project manager for the Minnesota Trust for Public Land, predicted the falls would be going on the private market very soon if the county didn’t approve the agreement. The land trust entered a purchase agreement with the current owner, Gary Warmington, and planned to take title for 12 to 18 months while the county sought state grants to pay for it.

Under terms of the agreement, the county will pay the land trust $1,925 a month for those 12 months. After that, the county’s payments would rise to $55,000 a month for six months and it would then become the owner.

The national conservation organization, however, would need to cancel the purchase if the county didn’t agree to be the ultimate owner, McGillivray told the board before the vote. And if the land trust dropped out, Warmington was likely going to put the property — which includes a house, a large garage and a shed — on the market.

McGillivray urged the board to seize the opportunity to open the falls to the public.

“It is an important resource that should be protected for public enjoyment,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Stenson strongly supported the purchase and quoted extensively from a memo to the county from Wayne Sames of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The opportunities to acquire a waterfall (are) extremely rare, especially in that part of the state. Probably close to a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sames wrote. “On a number of levels — educational, scientific, aesthetic, scenic — this is an extraordinary area.”

Sames’ opinion is important because he manages the DNR’s local grants program, which provides funding for up to half the cost of purchasing new scenic areas and parks with local governments providing the other half.

“I believe this project would rank highly in our grant evaluation process,” Sames wrote.

Stenson said he hopes a private benefactor can be found to help cover the county’s share of the purchase. And even if $150,000 in tax dollars are spent, Stenson asked board members to compare that use of tax revenue — to purchase something that will be enjoyed by county residents in perpetuity — to the use of millions of tax dollars to fix a county road that will be worn out again in a couple of decades.

“I think Nicollet County should not lose this opportunity,” Stenson said.

Commissioners Judy Hanson and Dave Haack joined Stenson in approving the agreement. Board Chairman Paul Engel voted with Kolars in opposition, saying he supported the idea only if he could be assured that tax dollars wouldn’t be used.

A pair of neighbors — Linda Johnson and Stan Stokesbary — spoke in opposition.

“My concern is Nicollet County doesn’t really have a plan for how they’re going to use this,” Johnson said. “... I don’t know, it just seems like kind of a half-baked idea.”

County officials said, however, that federal funds for development of the park probably wouldn’t be available until 2007, leaving plenty of time for examining options. And they invited the neighbors to participate in the planning process.

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