The development of the Farmland and Natural Areas Program started in 1999 in response to citizen concern about the changing Dakota County landscape, primarily due to rapid population growth and associated development.
Each year during the 1990s, between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of land were being converted from primarily agricultural to suburban uses. About 3,000 new housing units were being constructed per year. By 1997, only 2–3 percent of the original pre-settlement natural areas still remained in the County. These areas continue to be lost, degraded and fragmented.
In the 2001 Dakota County Resident Survey, 96 percent of respondents expressed interest in protecting natural areas and lakes (69 percent said it was very important and 27 percent said it was somewhat important). Another 54 percent of respondents expressed a strong interest in protecting farmland.
In 2002, the Trust for Public Land (a private, non-profit organization) conducted an independent poll of Dakota County citizens and found 63 percent of respondents favored a referendum to implement a farmland/natural areas protection program.
Development of protection plan
The current program is the outcome of a three-year planning effort, which began in 1999 with $200,000 in funding from the Minnesota Legislature. Led by county staff and a number of non-profit and government agency partners, 80,000 acres of farmland and natural areas were inventoried, identified, and prioritized for protection.
The Farmland and Natural Area Protection Plan was adopted in January 2002. Dakota County received an additional $93,500 from the Minnesota Legislature as a follow-up grant to implement the Plan. The Plan identified 36,000 acres of priority natural areas and 42,000 acres of priority farmland for protection.
The Dakota County Board of Commissioners placed a $20-million bond referendum on the November 2002 ballot to provide funding. Dakota County staff estimated the referendum, if passed, would result in a property tax increase of about $17 per year on a home valued at $176,300 (2002 Dakota County median home value).
Citizens and non-profit organizations conducted educational campaigns to make residents aware of the issue and enlist support for the referendum. Dakota County voters approved the referendum by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, becoming the first successful countywide open space protection referendum in Minnesota. Dakota County funds are matched by a variety of federal, state, and local government money; landowner donations and foundations.