The County's land conservation efforts developed in response to resident concerns about the changing Dakota County landscape. Each year during the 1990s, between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of land were being converted from primarily agricultural to suburban development. 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.
The Minnesota Legislature provided Dakota County with $200,000 in 1999 to develop a plan for preserving farmland and natural areas. During a three-year planning effort 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.
Farmland and Natural Areas Program
The Farmland and Natural Area Protection Plan was adopted in January 2002. The plan identified 36,000 acres of priority natural areas and 42,000 acres of priority farmland for protection. Dakota County received an additional $93,500 from the Minnesota Legislature as a follow-up grant to implement the plan.
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.
Voter approved program
The Dakota County Board of Commissioners placed a $20 million bond referendum on the November 2002 ballot to provide funding for protection of farmland and natural areas. 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).
Dakota County voters approved the referendum 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 foundation funding.
A model for successful land protection
The Farmland and Natural Areas Program (FNAP) was a model for successful land protection. In 2005, the program was one of six recipients from across the country to receive an inaugural County Conservation Leadership Award from the National Association of Counties and the Trust for Public Land.
It has also received awards from the American Planning Association, Minnesota Association of Counties, and the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. In 2009, the FNAP received a Governor's Award for Pollution Prevention.
In 2014, the County began coordinating all of its non-park and greenway land protection and restoration efforts within the current Land Conservation Program.
Natural resource management
The County required development of a Natural Resource Management Plan (NRMP) for each natural area conservation easement from the inception of the program, to assess the property and make recommendations for improving natural resource conditions. Implementing the NRMP was voluntary.
Beginning in 2016, all new natural area conservation easements acquired by the County require that the landowner commit to contributing to initial implementation of the NRMP.
In 2017 the County Board approved a new policy of providing up to 90 percent of the cost to restore natural resources within County conservation easements.
New Land Conservation Plan
The County is updating the Farmland and Natural Area Protection Plan with a new, comprehensive Land Conservation Plan, scheduled for completion in the fall 2019.