A complex Washington County land deal decades in the making could soon come to fruition as a 2,600-acre cattle operation becomes a wildlife management area and an addition to a county park.
Considered one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the metro area, the privately owned Kelley Land and Cattle Co. property includes lakes, woods, wetlands, wildlife habitat and wide open expanses of rolling prairie and grassland that for years sustained sheep and a herd of Angus cattle.
"It's very pristine, very natural resource focused," said Wayne Sandberg, Washington County public works director.
The ranch was established in 1958 by James E. Kelley, a prominent Twin Cities attorney and businessman who died at age 93 in 1989. His heirs have since managed the land and continue to raise cattle; no one from the family was available Wednesday to comment on the sale.
The land will be sold in two chunks: one for a state wildlife management area known as Keystone Woods, and the second for an addition to the Big Marine Park Reserve, a Washington County park. The purchase price won't become public until the sale is complete.
The first closing could take place in about a month, said Bob McGillivray of the Trust for Public Land. The nonprofit, acting as an intermediary, will use money from the state Outdoor Heritage Fund to acquire about 1,840 acres for the wildlife management area. The transfer will require two closings and should be completed by the fall, he said.
"We've been in discussion with these land owners for a number of years," McGillivray said. "The timing was finally right."
McGillivray and others said the deal is one of the largest-ever purchases for the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the state program created in 2008 that uses sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to protect wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat.
The land would have been extremely valuable for residential development and could have ended up as houses if it weren't for the state fund, McGillivray said. "We were very worried that it would go to a developer," he said, adding that the owners wanted to find a deal that would keep the land in its natural state.
The property includes three lakes that hold a mix of panfish and walleye, said Scott Noland of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Hunters will find deer, turkey, pheasant and waterfowl as well.
The property could be open to the public as soon as the fall of 2024, Noland said, but the state will have to first add parking and signage. Dilapidated buildings will need to be removed as well.
The county will buy the remaining 760 acres from the Kelley Farm and add it to Big Marine Park Reserve, purchasing about a third every year for three years, Sandberg said. The stepped approach will allow the county to apply for reimbursement from the Metropolitan Council for 75% of the land's cost, he said.
The land is mostly open space with a history of being used for agriculture, said Sandberg. The county plans to convert it to natural prairie. It's not yet known what will happen to a handful of old structures on the property, including a small house, but Sandberg said they'll be evaluated and then either torn down or repurposed for storage.