WEST FARGO — The West Fargo Park District may have to simply sell its land near Elmwood Park and Interstate 94, commonly called "Beaton Farm," without a firm plan from a developer after the City Commission failed to pass a planned unit development plan for current plans to develop multi-unit housing in the area.
The park district was quick to point out that the land that it has been considering selling to developers the past two years was not dedicated to the park district by the Beaton Family. The land was given to the district by the developers who bought the former land and farm owned by the Beaton family.
West Fargo Parks Executive Director Barb Erbstoesser said back in 2002, when the park district got involved with the property, the Beaton family had sold the land to the developer.
"So it was not a direct dedication from the Beaton family's of the park district; I want to make that clear," Erbstoesser said.
"That was never dedicated and that could be sold to any party," said West Fargo City Attorney John Shockley. "From a legal perspective, they can sell the land that was dedicated. Just like the city of West Fargo can sell land that has been given to the city."
The park district once used the buildings for storage, but after the Sheyenne Street reconstruction project, the area was no longer viable for the park's use. It then began considering selling the land and worked with a developer to bring a project to the City Commission for approval before completing the sale.
It also worked to use some of the land to improve Elmwood Park including adding a narrow road and better access to the north side of the park.
However, some neighbors in the area are against the idea of developing the space and wish to see it left as "green space" or developed into a city park or dog park.
Nicole Nelson said she is concerned about the project and all the neighbors she has talked to do not support it.
"One hundred percent of people who came to the door were in not in support of this," Nelson said at the city's recent meeting. "I really feel like we were just trying to polish a pickle and make the best out of a bad situation. It will really feel like a slap in the face of the community. Other cities are creating green space where ever they can, including lamp posts and roof tops because they have overused their green space. We will be sandwiched by development."
Erbstoesser said the park district first appeared before the city in 2019 and there was a lot of hesitation at the planning and zoning level because planning officials asked the park district to get more development detail.
The development would plant more than 70 trees in the area, although it would remove some of the established trees. It would also install underground parking and provide management and property maintenance.
Developers said the property would also generate about $10 million in property tax revenue to the city, if approved.
"I feel like we went back to the drawing board several times and we did the best we could for the citizens for West Fargo," Erbstoesser said.
Mayor Bernie Dardis said the owner is West Fargo Park District but the applicant is J&O Real Estate.
"I struggle with that. The City Commission is dealing with two entities. The West Fargo Park District is a separate entity than the city of West Fargo. I have trouble with the idea that we would override another governing body," Dardis said.
"We have to work as a team and if we don't, nothing will ever get done," Commissioner Mark Simmons said. "As a city commissioner, I feel no obligation to override anything the park district does. The developer will execute it. It is going into a PUD, so that means we will have control and so will the residents," Simmons said. "There is no better way to do a project than a PUD."
The park district could sell to a developer that would take the gamble and move forward without receiving a PUD from the city, which can highly regulate development terms including the planting of trees and adding buffers.
"If the trees die or something is not put in that was promised, it can be enforced through the PUD," said Tim Solberg, deputy city administrator.
The city inspects that all things promised are done before it will issue a certificate of occupancy, which is how the city enforces PUD projects, said Tim Solberg, deputy city administrator and former planning director.
Commissioner Mandy George, who lives in the neighborhood, was passionately against the project.
"One hundred percent of the neighborhood does not want this," George said. "This is a horrible idea. If we support this we are not supporting what people want in the neighborhoods."
George cited safety concerns for the project and the narrow road. She also suggested as some neighbors have that the land be turned into a dog park.
However, commissioners and park officials pointed out there is not enough parking in the area for a dog park.
"It's a good idea, but you would still have the parking issue. We would create probably a bigger parking issue than anybody would probably want," Commissioner Brad Olson said.
Simmons pointed out that while the neighborhood may not want additional housing in the area, and wish for the "green space" to stay, by keeping the land, the park district will have to pay the special assessment bill, which is paid for by general taxpayers instead of a private developer. The park district is also not taxed on the land in the same way a private owner would be.
"The park district does not need our permission to sell the land. It could be sold at anytime. Who knows what would come in there — it could be a gas station; it could be anything," Simmons said. "Here they have met all the requirements, they have jumped through all the hurdles and they have made something that would fit in that little corner of West Fargo. We represent the entire city, not the neighborhood, and that is the what is called taxpayer dollars."
Simmons also pointed out that open space in West Fargo is not likely to stay that way.
"If you buy a house with green space, you better well accept that may not always be there," he said.
However, Commissioner Eric Gjerdevig said people may expect green space to stay near a city park and some homeowners may argue apartment developments will reduce their home value.
Erbstoesser said the total property was appraised last year at $4 to $6 per square foot, which could have fetched about $813,000 if all sold for $6 per square foot.
The application to rezone the property failed at the city level by a 3-2 vote with Commissioners George, Gjerdevig and Dardis voting against the project.