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Duluth, county to decide fate of tax-forfeited lands

Many of the lands users assume to be part of Duluth's park system are actually tax-forfeited properties controlled by St. Louis County, but a pending agreement could transfer ownership to the city, ensuring those areas remain undeveloped for the long haul.

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Steve Berry, of Duluth, rides his bike on the Lester River Trail on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. About 80% of the land within the boundaries of what most people consider the park actually is tax-forfeited land controlled by St. Louis County. But Duluth officials are seeking to take ownership of that land, so that it can be formally designated and protected as city park. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

What makes Duluth special? That’s an easy question to answer, according to Jim Filby Williams, director of Duluth’s parks, properties and public libraries.

“All communities place significant value on open space,” he said. “But for many Duluth residents, public open space is not just one among many community assets. For many, it is the paramount community asset that bonds residents to this community.”

As evidence of his claim, Filby Williams pointed to a survey taken to inform the city’s comprehensive plan. When residents were asked to identify the best community assets in Duluth. The top four answers in descending order were: the city’s proximity to Lake Superior, its natural scenery, followed by Duluth’s wealth of parks and trails.

“But many people do not realize that about one-third of Duluth’s public open lands is neither owned by the city nor permanently protected from sale and development,” he said.

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Avery Jenny, left, 12, of Duluth, reacts as he shows a crayfish to Adrien Viergutz, 13, of Duluth, while swimming at the "Smiley Face" hole in Amity Creek on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

That third is tax-forfeited land, owned by the state and administered by St. Louis County.

For years, St. Louis County has graciously allowed residents and visitors to use many of these lands for recreational purposes, including the development of an extensive network of trails for hiking, skiing and biking.

“To a remarkable degree, the city and the county are in sync on the management of tax-forfeited lands in Duluth. That said, environmentally and recreationally valuable tax-forfeited lands would likely be managed differently under city ownership. Protection of such properties would likely be more definitive, durable and difficult to reverse,” Filby Williams said.

He noted that many of Duluth’s park systems sit atop land that the city does not control, including about 80% of what most people consider Lester Park and nearly 100% of an area known as Piedmont Park.

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Swimmers enjoy a warm summer afternoon at the "Smiley Face" hole in Amity Creek on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The proposed agreement largely recognizes the current use of those tax-forfeited lands, said Julie Marinucci, director of St. Louis County’s land and minerals department.

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“A lot of these lands have been used in the way that they want to preserve it for so long that there’s been some sort of natural protections in place, where we’ve respected how the city chooses to use those lands,” she said.

“But this process and moving it forward to more formalize that I wouldn’t say has been a difficult discussion. It’s just difficult work. It just takes a lot of detailed work to move it through that process,” Marinucci explained.

Filby Williams described the city’s talks with the county as 10-year cooperative labor, and noted more work remains to be done.

Marinucci agreed.

“We’ve been working diligently, going back and forth with the city and making sure that we’re all on the same page about which lands are a priority and reviewing those and reviewing them to make sure that we are aligning best both with the tax-forfeited trust but then also with what the city’s priorities are and trying to find that happy medium," she said.

Arik Forsman, Duluth city councilor at large, praised city and county officials for finding common ground over such a complicated quilt of properties, describing it as a “herculean” feat.

Filby Williams said city staff had good to reason to be motivated.

“The city has invested millions over decades in these tax-forfeited properties, constructing trails, trailheads and park amenities for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, cyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

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City staff also have borne the responsibility and cost of maintaining these paths and other amenities, Filby Williams noted.

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Jennifer Berry, of Duluth, rides her bike on the Lester River Trail on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Jake Boyce, vice board chair of the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores, said they "appreciate the partnerships that have been."

"And this could be another great partnership if we can secure that land for future generations so we know everyone can continue to enjoy it," he said.

The prospect of further protecting trails also appeals to Eric Chandler, a founding board member of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club and communications liaison for the organization.

“I always thought it was curious that St. Louis County has acreage right in the heart of the city," he said. "It always seemed odd to me. But luckily, the city and the county haven’t been at odds with each other about it. So, these trail systems continued to function without any interruption or conflict, generally speaking."

“But that’s no future guarantee, because if St. Louis County saw some lucrative opportunity to develop it they could. ... The point is: It’s St. Louis County land,” Chandler said. “So, my opinion is that I would be happy to see the city take ownership of that tax-forfeited land, particularly when it involves cross-country ski trails, because we’re interested in preserving the trails we have. We don’t want to lose any of our world-class cross-country ski system.”

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Avery Jenny, 12, of Duluth, looks at a crayfish he caught as a fellow swimmer reacts in Amity Creek on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Under the city’s proposal, 345 acres of ecologically sensitive St. Louis River waterfront property would be acquired with the help of a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tax-forfeited land in the Lester, Hartley/Downer, Piedmont and Mission Creek area also would be transferred to the city in conjunction with the donation to St. Louis County of identically valued timberland located outside of Duluth with help from the Minnesota Land Trust and Minnesota’s Conservation Fund. The county stands to gain 4,300 acres of land formerly owned by Potlatch and valued at $3.9 million.

RELATED: Huge conservation land sale closes in northern Minnesota PotlatchDeltic sold its last 72,440 acres of forest land in Minnesota to The Conservation Fund.
Marinucci said that by keeping those forestlands in a managed state, the county can benefit taxpayers and provide a needed resource for the region’s forest product industries.

In all, the city of Duluth is proposing that 2,398 acres of tax-forfeited land be transferred to its ownership for conservation, recreation and stormwater management.

This would leave another 419 acres available to be sold at auction by the county for potential development.

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Brooklynn Viergutz, 10, of Duluth, relaxes on an inflatable tube in Amity Creek on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“This will be a spur for development to some extent,” Filby Williams predicted.

Marinucci finds that an exciting prospect.

“I think that’s probably one of the biggest benefits for the county, is to see the city’s perspective on the highest and best use of some of the lands that they didn’t identify for preservation,” she said.

Marinucci said that clarity about what land the city views as ripe for development is helpful.

“So, we can start moving those pieces of property toward public auction and sale to realize that potential," she said.

The plan will be the subject of a couple of virtual public meetings at 5 p.m. Tuesday and noon Wednesday. A link to those meetings is available at duluthmn.gov/live-meeting .

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Avery Jenny, left, 12, and Adrien Viergutz, 13, both of Duluth, hunt for crayfish while swimming at the "Smiley Face" hole in Amity Creek on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Lester Park in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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