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Erik Burgess, Published August 13 2013

Fargo wants to turn 129 acres of vacant land just south of city limits into wildlife park

FARGO – More than 100 acres of public land just south of town could be turned into the city’s largest conservancy park as early as next spring.

The land is in three Cass County subdivisions just south of city limits – Orchard Glen, Forest River and Heritage Hills – where many homes have been acquired and removed over the past decade because of frequent flooding.

Houses can’t be rebuilt there and the county has let the land return to its natural state, which makes it prime for a wildlife conservancy park, said Clay Whittlesey, director of recreation for the Fargo Park District.

The Park District has conducted archery tournaments and birding festivals in the 129-acre area for many years, and Orchard Glen is a popular public apple-picking area, Whittlesey said.

Park leaders now want to make it an official part of the Fargo park system. It would be the biggest nature park of them all. The largest conservancy area in Fargo is now the 9-acre Lions Conservancy Park near Rose Creek.

“We really don’t have anything like this,” Whittlesey said.

During the last birding festival in the 129-acre area, 96 species of birds were observed, he said.

“It’s really kind of one of the premier birding spots in North Dakota, we’ve been told,” he said.

The Park District has been in talks with the county for nearly 10 years about making the area the city’s largest wildlife park, Whittlesey said, but park officials wanted to wait for Fargo to continue to expand south and for more homes in the river corridor to be acquired.

The land is already being used by the public, Whittlesey said, and he believes the Fargo parks staff can do a better job maintaining the area than the county.

He said the Park District will not install concrete paths or public restrooms. The land will remain all natural, but will be patrolled by park staff.

“What we want to do is we want to keep the riff raff out,” Whittlesey said. “We want to keep the four-wheelers out of there … we want to have proper signage, proper gates.”

The county plans a public hearing on the matter at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16 at Davies High School.

If all goes well, the Cass County Commission and the Fargo Park Board could be discussing it shortly after. There could be a grand opening as early as May, Whittlesey said.

The land falls into the city’s extra-territorial zone, which allows Fargo to acquire land within two miles of the city limits ahead of the annexation schedule, said Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt.

The Park District has acquired extra-territorial land like this before with the intent of building parks before development begins, Whittlesey said. Examples are the roughly 160-acre Brunelle Property on 64th Avenue South and 45th Street, and the 115-acre Rutten Property near Interstate 29 and 78th Avenue South.

“We’ve found if we don’t get park land out ahead of the developments, it just doesn’t happen,” he said.

The proposed conservancy park is on three separate “peninsulas” that jut into the Red River, Berndt said.

The county is in the process of offering buyouts to the few homes left on Forest River Road, which would allow a future conservancy area in Orchard Glen to be connected to a Forest River peninsula, Berndt said.

Whittlesey said he understands there could be concerns from homeowners who haven’t taken a buyout and still live along the river. He hopes they will attend the public meeting and voice their concerns.

“Obviously, if we do acquire these areas, we want to have as little impact on the neighborhoods as possible,” he said.

Berndt said those homeowners should be excited about the possibility.

“Personally, I think it’s an asset to the area,” he said. “And even as a homeowner living next to a nature park, what could be a better amenity?”

A similar conversation is happening in Moorhead, where the F-M Metropolitan Council of Governments is conducting a river corridor study to plan how to repurpose public land acquired through flood buyouts.

Wade Kline, executive director for Metro COG, said that study is on phase two, and a consultant is combing the riverbanks collecting geotechnical data in order to find out what projects are feasible.

By late October, Metro COG plans to sponsor a multiple-day public outreach event to give the public and other key stakeholders, such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and River Keepers, a chance to see what the consultant has found, Kline said.

Fargo will be kept in the loop for any possible crossover possibilities such as building new bike and pedestrian bridges over the Red River, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518