Duluth may gain thousands of acres of parkland to protect

·3 min read

DULUTH – The city is poised to take control of about 2,400 acres of parkland in a major tax-forfeit land transfer by St. Louis County.

Although much of the land already is crossed by trails and other park amenities, the proposed deal would ensure the parcels are permanently protected as part of the city's already vast inventory of open spaces.

"Most residents probably assume, incorrectly, that these are already protected parklands," said Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of parks, properties and libraries. "This will put in place the protections to ensure that land they use so heavily and cherish so deeply will continue to be managed and preserved as a public park."

Formally known as the "strategic lands realignment," the project would see the county transfer or sell thousands of tax-forfeit parcels that it manages on behalf of the state throughout the city. The total value of the land is about $7.5 million, for which the city expects to pay $250,000, largely in real estate services and fees.

The city also is working with the county on selling developable tax-forfeit land in Duluth, which could help the city attract sorely needed new housing.

"What we're trying to do together is not just permanently protect a significant quantity of tax-forfeit property, but more broadly to work together to optimize the ownership and use of tax-forfeit properties to best advance the public good," Filby Williams said.

First, however, the city and county must come to terms about which parcels will be transferred or sold. (Lands set aside for environmental protection as opposed to parks or trails are typically sold at 20% of market prices.)

"It's a very specific process," said Julie Marinucci, St. Louis County's director of lands and minerals. "It has been a really good working relationship, and it is exciting to take the next steps."

The county recently gained more than 4,300 acres of former PotlatchDeltic timberlands through a donation from the Minnesota Land Trust and the Conservation Fund, which helps to offset the acreage the county may be ceding to Duluth.

Some of the land has been in tax-forfeit status for more than a century, Filby Williams said, and placing it under city ownership will provide a "single agency natural resource management plan that is tailored to the site." He compared the city's efforts to ongoing consolidation of lands long held in a checkerboard of ownership around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"Numerous plans and studies have shown the high value Duluth residents place on restoring and protecting these lands," he said. "We fully expect that the county will choose not to assent to some of the parcels we wish to acquire for permanent protection. And that is to be expected and perfectly OK. We expect to come to agreement on the vast majority of cases."

Marinucci said the yearslong process the city and county have gone through has given "great insight into how these lands should be managed and moved forward."

The first suite of properties the city has identified represents more than half of the 4,000 acres it is ultimately looking to take over:

• 650 acres in the Piedmont neighborhood.

• 637 acres around Mission Creek.

• 493 acres in the Lester River area.

• 272 acres in the Woodland neighborhood.

• 345 acres along the St. Louis River.

The St. Louis River land will be purchased with part of a $900,000 EPA grant the city has received and will help protect the massive investment already made by the state and federal government cleaning up the estuary, Filby Williams said.

Before any land is exchanged, several public outreach sessions starting next week will culminate in votes by several city commissions, the City Council and the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496