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State v. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

December 23, 2003


Hennepin County District Court File No. MC011043

Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Anderson, Judge.


I. The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act protects an open space that is a part of a designated historic site when the open space independently and in connection with the remainder of the site constitutes a historical resource.

II. A proposed use for a historical resource may impose a serious and long-term effect without materially adversely affecting the historical resource under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

III. An action to protect a historical resource under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act is not precluded by administrative consultations and mediations conducted pursuant to the Minnesota or National Historic Sites Acts.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Toussaint, Chief Judge



Appellant Fort Snelling State Park Association (FSSPA) brought a declaratory-judgment action against respondents Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (the park board) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), seeking a declaration that the outdoor athletic center planned by the park board in an area known as the Fort Snelling Polo Grounds would impair a historical resource within the meaning of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). The district court concluded that the polo grounds were a historical resource and although the athletic center would result in some impairment to the integrity of the polo grounds as an open space, it would not inflict a material adverse effect. Because we conclude that the district court correctly applied the law and did not abuse its discretion in finding facts, we affirm.


In January 2001, appellant FSSPA filed this action, seeking protection of the Fort Snelling Polo Grounds as a historical resource under MERA. Respondent DNR had just entered into a lease agreement with the respondent park board, which had adopted a plan to construct an outdoor athletic center on the polo grounds. The plan was for softball, baseball, and soccer fields with outdoor lighting, grandstands, backstops, and auxiliary structures surrounded by cyclone fencing. The FSSPA sought a declaratory judgment that the "highly intrusive and unnecessary structures" would impair the historical and natural resources protected by MERA, and an injunction preventing the park board from proceeding with the development.

Fort Snelling consists of two sites referred to as the Old Fort and the New Fort. The Old Fort, constructed between 1820 and 1824, and reconstructed and preserved since then, is not at issue here. The New Fort, constructed between 1879 and 1890, lies on the 141-acre Upper Bluff located across Highway 55 from the Old Fort. One part of the New Fort, the polo or artillery parade grounds, is at the center of this dispute. It is bordered by Taylor Avenue to the east, Minnehaha Avenue to the south, Bloomington Road to the west, and Highway 55 to the north. Across Taylor Avenue to the east of the polo grounds are the old army hospital and barracks buildings, also known as the Taylor Avenue buildings.

The Taylor Avenue buildings were first constructed to serve as the headquarters of the Department of the Dakota in 1879. A regiment of 200-700 troops was stationed there with the purpose of protecting the westward migration of settlers. Although the department was abolished in 1890, the New Fort continued to be used as a military base until it was decommissioned in 1946. A recent study of the Upper Bluff area concluded that any reuse plan must preserve or reuse the Taylor Avenue buildings, with an estimated cost between $33-43 million.

The polo grounds are an open space. It was a public garden until about 1879, and were likely used for drilling exercises until 1890. A 1903 map labels the open space the "Artillery and Infantry Parade Grounds." Since 1900, the grounds have been used for both military and recreational purposes, including polo, baseball, and races. A low-rise concrete grandstand was constructed in the 1930s, and polo was played there until 1939, when horses were no longer kept at the fort. After the fort was decommissioned, the space was used almost exclusively for recreational purposes with several multi-use fields for baseball, softball, and soccer.

In 1960, while still owned by the federal government, Fort Snelling was designated a National Historic Landmark. Six years later, Fort Snelling was included in the National Register of Historic Places. Initially, the boundaries were ill-defined, but in 1978 they were redrawn to include all of the Upper Bluff area. Fort Snelling was also designated a State Historic Site and a State Historic District.

In 1971, the federal government transferred the whole Upper Bluff area to the DNR for use only as a public park or for recreational purposes. In 1992, the park board began leasing the polo grounds and the golf course from the DNR. Five years later, the park board appointed a committee on youth sports that recommended increasing and upgrading Minneapolis sports facilities to achieve parity with the fields available to suburban youth.

Fort Snelling's Polo Grounds were selected as the site. The park board then formed a Citizen's Advisory Committee (committee) to assist in the development plan for a youth athletic center. Committee members included state and federal legislators and representatives from the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), National Park Service (NPS), Department of Veteran Affairs, and others. In 1999, the committee approved the initial design, and the state legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to lease the polo grounds to the park board for recreation purposes for 30 years.

Because the proposed youth athletic center included land owned by the DNR and included on the state and national registers of historic properties, the plan was subject to review by the MHS under the Minnesota Historic Sites Act, Minn. Stat. § 138.665. The DNR was also required to submit the plan for input from the National Park Service (NPS). The federal review process culminated in a Memorandum of Agreement (memorandum), incorporating changes to minimize the adverse effect of the lights, bleachers, and fencing, and included mitigation measures requiring that three interpretive events be staged on the grounds annually and that a water main loop be constructed to irrigate the fields and redevelop the Taylor Avenue buildings. The MHS, DNR, Department of Veteran's Affairs, and the park board signed the memorandum. It was then submitted to the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which also accepted the memorandum.

On completion of the federal process, the NPS issued a finding of no significant impact under the National Environmental Policy Act and approved the Amended Program of Utilization and a new 30-year lease between the DNR and the park board. Both the amended program and the lease incorporated the memorandum by reference and required the park board to obtain prior written approval from both the MHS and the NPS before undertaking any new development activity.

On April 25, 2001, the final construction plans for the athletic center were approved by the NPS and shortly thereafter by the MHS. Gray steel light standards and black vinyl fencing were chosen to blend into the surroundings and the light standards were "aligned to compliment the military aspect of the site." At the time of trial in February 2002, the center was 90% complete and on March 20, the trial court, accompanied by counsel for the parties, visited the site.

On May 1, 2002, the trial court filed its findings, conclusions, and order denying the relief requested by the FSSPA and entering judgment for respondents. Thereafter, the parties filed cross-motions for amended findings and conclusions, and the FSSPA moved in the alternative for a new trial. ...

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