Petition drive aimed at saving trees near Lake MitchellA group of local residents is circulating petitions in an effort to protect a wooded, city-owned lot near Lake Mitchell. The lot measures about nine acres and is covered mainly in ponderosa pines. The property line is roughly triangular in shape, and the northwest corner of the lot is located at the intersection of North Harmon Drive and National Guard Road, across from Lake Mitchell.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
A group of local residents is circulating petitions in an effort to protect a wooded, city-owned lot near Lake Mitchell.
The lot measures about nine acres and is covered mainly in ponderosa pines. The property line is roughly triangular in shape, and the northwest corner of the lot is located at the intersection of North Harmon Drive and National Guard Road, across from Lake Mitchell.
The petitions ask the Mitchell City Council to rescind its Dec. 7 decision to declare the wooded lot a surplus property.
“The undersigned petitioners respectfully petition this governing body not to sell, trade, destroy or otherwise dispose of the above described property,” says the petition, “but to leave it in its present state.”
The people circulating the petitions hope to present hundreds of signatures to the Mitchell City Council at a future meeting, and they hope the petitions will convince the council members to retain the wooded lot and its natural beauty.
The council’s next meeting is Monday, but City Council President Jeff Smith said the issue is not currently on the agenda. At least one council member plans to be absent Monday, Smith said, so the council plans to wait until at least its March 1 meeting to discuss the wooded lot with all the members present. The council meets on the first and third Mondays of every month at City Hall.
At the council’s last meeting Feb. 1, council members voted 4-3 to reject a proposed trade of the wooded lot for a privately owned spec building on a smaller lot adjacent to the city’s new Pepsi Cola Soccer Complex. The trade would have included a payment of $150,000 to the owner of the building, local resident Jerry Thomsen, whose lakefront home is across the street from the city’s wooded lot.
Thomsen built his spec building for the Mitchell Area Development Corporation to potentially sell to a new or expanding or relocating company. Such a sale never materialized before the city surrounded the building on two sides with the new soccer complex, and Thomsen now thinks the presence of the soccer complex has limited the potential uses for his building and has diminished the building’s value.
Thomsen privately negotiated the swap with the city over the past couple of years, but a public hearing was required as part of the deal. When dozens of people protested the deal at the public hearing Dec. 21, the City Council postponed a decision. Then, when residents again showed up to protest the deal at the Feb. 1 meeting, the council rejected the swap.
In the weeks before details of the swap proposal went public, the City Council platted its wooded lot and declared it surplus. The surplus designation is still in effect, so the council members could put the property up for sale if they wish.
Local resident Mike Kuchera, who is involved in the petition effort, told The Daily Republic that the wooded lot is serving as a natural filter for runoff entering algae-plagued Lake Mitchell. The property also adds natural beauty to the lake area, he said.
“It’s the last undisturbed nature drive around the lake,” Kuchera said. “Let’s leave it alone.”
Local resident Bob Porter, who also is involved with the petition drive, urged all Mitchell residents to educate themselves about the issue and get involved — even those residents who do not have homes around the lake. He fears that there is not enough awareness of the issue, and that people won’t be aware of it until they take a future drive around the lake and notice that the wooded lot has been cleared and developed.
“When it’s gone, people will know,” Porter said. “We don’t want that to happen. This is the whole city of Mitchell’s lake.”
Councilman Smith said he does not know what the council will do with the wooded lot.
“I do want to keep an open mind and have some open discussion about what would be best, not only for the neighborhood but also for the whole city,” Smith said.
Besides the petition circulators and the City Council, a third group that could influence the fate of the wooded lot is the newly formed Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee. The City Council voted to create the committee Dec. 7, and its mayor-appointed members have since met twice.
The committee has discussed the wooded lot, said chairman Greg McCurry, and much of the discussion focused on the desire of some committee members to preserve the wooded lot and enhance it with nature trails. The committee has not voted on the issue, though, and therefore has no official position.
“I think our committee would like to have further discussion on it and have the opportunity to make a recommendation,” McCurry said in an interview this week with The Daily Republic. The committee’s next meeting is at 4 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
That the wooded lot has become a source of controversy is somewhat surprising, given its apparently quiet existence for the past 82 years. Until recently, most of the people involved in the controversy over the wooded lot had no idea it was publicly owned.
A handwritten deed at the courthouse indicates that the lot was part of a larger tract of land purchased by the city of Mitchell in 1927 for $22,300 from Henry and Elsa Elsaesser. Historical records at the Carnegie Resource Center indicate that condemnation proceedings were necessary to obtain the Elsaesser land (the name is spelled “Alsesser” in the Carnegie records), and that 161 total acres were acquired from the couple as part of a series of land purchases that were “necessary for proposed impounding reservoir.”
The “impounding reservoir” is Lake Mitchell, which was created in 1928 by the construction of a dam on Firesteel Creek. Sometime after the lake was created, trees apparently were planted on the nine-acre lot that is now at the center of controversy.
Jim Hunt, a former local conservationist, speculated Wednesday that the trees on the lot may have been planted to serve as a windbreak during the 1940s by the federal government’s Prairie States Forestry Project. Hunt said he was involved in a later project to inventory those windbreaks.
View City/Thomsen land swap in a larger map