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For 20 years, Bloomington's last working farm has served as an odd reminder of the city's agricultural past, a bucolic sweep of green fields and grazing sheep perched on the Minnesota River bluffs within view of the Mall of America.

Now the Kelley Farm may finally fall to development. United Properties has a purchase agreement for the 58 acres that makes up the biggest undeveloped piece of property left in Bloomington.

While the farm has a spectacular view of the river, its location near the end of an airport runway safety zone means housing can't be built on the site. Bill Katter, a United Properties senior vice president for development, said that the purchase agreement requires confidentiality, but if the deal goes through, offices will probably be built. He said he already has interested clients.

"It's a unique property for its views and proximity to the Mall of America and airport," he said. "All those things play into our interest to make a deal there."

The site also presents challenges. Storm water must be handled on site before it flows into the river below, but open storm water ponds can't be built there because they could attract waterfowl to the runway zone.

The biggest complication is that historical records show 24 Indian burial mounds on the farm. Under state law, burial grounds cannot be disturbed.

Katter said he couldn't comment on those issues until all site studies are done and a purchase is completed. "Our intentions are to develop within the city's zoning guidelines," he said.

A working family farm

Sale and development of the farm would end almost 80 years of Kelley family ownership. James E. Kelley, who bought the farm in 1932, was general counsel to St. Paul's Theodore Hamm Brewing Co., maker of Hamm's beer. At one time he also was president of United Properties, started by the Hamm family.

According to a history of the farm that appeared in a 2005 newsletter of the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District, the farm was more than 1,000 acres when Kelley bought it. Kelley, a gentleman farmer, built an impressive house of locally quarried limestone on what was called Spruce Shadows Farm. The house is still there, though it is hidden from the road by trees. Kelley's 1989 obituary said he raised Guernsey cattle and Duroc hogs and introduced White Holland turkeys to Minnesota.

As Bloomington grew, pieces of the farm were sold off. In 1986, the family contested the city's efforts to buy land for the mall. The city condemned 32 acres and agreed to pay the family $10.4 million. In recent years, sheep and llamas grazed the fields. The last family member to live there apparently was Kelley's daughter, Cynthia Kelley O'Neill, who died in 2005.

While there have been sporadic efforts to save the farm as green space, Larry Lee, Bloomington's director of community development, said the city could never afford to buy it.

The most distinctive thing about the property is its location along the bluff and the accompanying view, Lee said. He is not sentimental about it being the last farm in the city.

"I guess every city in the close-in Twin Cities area has had a last working farm," he said. "... The buildings on the site are pretty interesting, built in a very quality way because of the resources of the Kelley family. But none is listed as historically significant."

But any Indian mounds on the property could be.

Mounds apparently destroyed

Bloomington officials know firsthand the complications that can result when old burials are disturbed. In 2004, construction on Bloomington Central Station was halted when Indian remains were uncovered. Eventually remains of 50 people were exposed and reburied nearby, said state archaeologist Scott Anfinson.

Under state law, Anfinson is responsible for authenticating unplatted burials over 50 years old. He said detailed maps and notes from an 1882 survey show 24 burial mounds on the farm. But when a Minnesota Historical Society survey crew visited in 1971, it reported the mounds had been destroyed.

Anfinson visited the farm in 2006. While the 1882 survey recorded 23 small mounds and one large mound 5 feet high and 70 feet in diameter, Anfinson said they appear to have been leveled. "I can't spot a single mound now, and I've been an archaeologist in Minnesota for 30 years," he said.

On Anfinson's recommendation, an archaeological specialist was hired to search for human remains on the farm. Soil borings and trenching have not uncovered any bones or burial features, Anfinson said. He believes the mounds were destroyed through decades of plowing and farm use. A barn sits at what is thought to be the location of the large mound, he said.

"Even a couple of years of cultivation would have knocked the shallow mounds down," he said. "One hundred years of cultivation, and they disappear."

One safe way for developers to proceed, he said, would be to preserve as green space the areas where mounds were once mapped to avoid disturbing any remains. About 80 percent of the farm would still be developable, he said.

The attorney representing the farm's owners, Tim Dwyer of St. Paul, did not return phone calls.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380