Cottage Grove officials close on part of former Mississippi Dunes Golf Course for park

16 July 2023

For as long as Zac Dockter can remember, city officials in Cottage Grove have been wanting a substantial city park on the Mississippi River.

They’re finally getting their wish.

City officials closed late last month on a 20-acre parcel that was once part of the Mississippi Dunes Golf Course.

“You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a bustling suburb right now, do you?” Dockter, the city’s parks and recreation director, said during a recent tour of the new park. “We have more shoreline than any other community in the metro and minimal public access, so this is huge for us.”

The city’s only other park on the river, the Hazen P. Mooers Park, is tucked away on Grey Cloud Island. It’s a popular spot for kayaking, fishing, picnicking and bird watching on the Mississippi River, but it covers just 1 acre, Dockter said.

Increasing public access to the river has long been one of the city’s top priorities, said Dockter, a Cottage Grove native who started working for the city in 2001. “Think of all of the different (city) councils there have been in 22 years,” he said. “Public access to the Mississippi River has always been a top priority. It’s always been number one.”

When the Mississippi Dunes property became available, city officials jumped on the opportunity, he said. “To have that kind of shoreline along the river, in the metro area, yeah, it’s a no-brainer,” Dockter said. “This is a different experience from anything else we have in Cottage Grove.”

The new city park, Mississippi Dunes Reserve, is expected to open to the public by Sept. 1. It includes the site of the former golf course’s clubhouse and pro shop, which burned in a suspected arson fire in August 2021.

Paved paths — formerly used by golfers — meander through the property, which is slowly returning to a more natural state since the golf course closed in 2017. Burr oak seedlings are taking root, and prairie flowers are blooming. Some remnants of the land’s past life remain: you can still find errant golf balls in the native grasses.

An overgrown path at the former Mississippi Dunes Golf Course in Cottage Grove. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

“This probably would have been dry prairie with these little pockets of oak savanna,” Dockter said. “You can see the oak regeneration that’s happened just in the past five years. It was always manicured as a golf course, but there must have been some native seeds in the bank. It’s really cool to see a lot of growth. All we needed to do was stop mowing it.”

An added bonus: The park is just west of the Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area, a 238-acre state-managed wilderness area, which will be expanding by 12 acres.

“I use the SNA all the time, but it scares a lot of people,” Dockter said. “There are no paved trails. I think people are afraid they’re going to get lost. It’s kind of intimidating. Whereas this, with the paths, you know where you are going. There’s a starting point and an end point.”

Park plans

The city purchased the land for Mississippi Dunes Reserve from Dave and Dawn Gustafson for $1 million, with half of the money coming from a state Department of Natural Resources grant and half coming from Washington County’s Land and Water Legacy Program, said City Administrator Jennifer Levitt.

Under the terms of the Land and Water Legacy Program — a bond referendum passed by Washington County voters in 2006 authorizing up to $20 million in taxes to be raised and spent on parks, land preservation and water protection — the 19 acres will remain a non-active natural area.

“The land has to be preserved and have nothing on it,” Levitt said. “We can’t have active features like a boat launch, picnic shelter, things like that, so it’s going to stay in a more pristine state.”

The existing paved paths — about 3,455 linear feet — will stay. Officials plan to add two small sections of paved trails, about 500 linear feet in all, and about 4,200 linear feet of natural hiking trails made of grass or rock.

A map shows the trails and proposed trails in the future Mississippi Dunes Reserve on a 20-acre park overlooking Mooers Lake. (Courtesy of City of Cottage Grove)

Eventually, city officials plan to build a more active park on about 14 acres of land upriver from the park. That land, which the city also closed on last month, will be used for active recreational use, such as boat launches, buildings and children’s play areas, Levitt said.

Housing plans

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The 14 acres of riverfront land was negotiated as part of the park dedication for future development of the rest of the former golf course — 174 acres in all — to single-family and medium-density housing, Levitt said.

Officials from Pulte Homes have dropped their plans to build 239 single-family homes, 130 townhomes and a 130-unit building for senior citizens on the site, but a new developer, St. Michael-based Rachel Development, has the land under option, Levitt said.

Officials from Rachel have not yet submitted a planning application to the city, said Paul Robinson, Rachel’s development director.

“We look forward to working with the city to see if we can make this beautiful, but challenging, site become a reality and one of the best neighborhoods in the city,” he said.

Landowner partners

The DNR also is purchasing land from the Gustafsons: a 12-acre parcel of land just east of the city’s new park that is slated to be the SNA expansion and a 38-acre parcel of land — the former golf course driving range — that is just west of the existing SNA, Levitt said.

Levitt praised the Gustafsons, who have owned the land since 2019, for their help in developing the parkland and granting an easement for the roadway to the park.

“They are all about preservation,” she said. “Their hearts really helped make this happen, and they’ve been great partners in all of this. They just have a desire to give back and preserve the land.”

Since the land is designated a transitional zoning area, “it could have been anything,” Levitt said. “They were willing to work with us through our master-planning efforts and wanted to see the public had access to the river and create something special. They are leaving us a legacy.”

The Gustafsons, who also own 20 acres of land just west of the golf course property, said they are thrilled that the riverfront section of the land will be preserved.

“It was very important to us to conserve as much of the property as possible, particularly the waterfront,” Dave Gustafson said. “Once you build houses on land, it’s never the same. By conserving those beautiful views and the access to the water, it gives people the chance to enjoy and experience it forever. We always wanted at least part of it to be park, if it couldn’t all be park.”

A common eastern bumble bee collects pollen from blue vervain flowers at the former Mississippi Dunes Golf Course in Cottage Grove on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Park visitors will be amazed by the wildlife and “uninterrupted views of nature,” Gustafson said. “It truly is a special place. It gives you a special feeling being there, even though you are in the city.”

Cottage Grove sales tax proposal

City officials are hoping voters in November 2024 will approve a half-cent sales tax to help fund $13 million in improvements to Mississippi Dunes Reserve. Money from the local-option sales tax, which is expected to generate about $1.2 million a year, would also be used for improvements at Hamlet Park and the River Oaks Golf Course; the total cost of the three projects is estimated at $36 million, Levitt said.

Levitt, an avid bird watcher, said she is particularly looking forward to visiting the park during the spring and fall migrations. The land is part of the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, a large tract bordering the river’s path through the Twin Cities and beyond.

“The Mississippi River is a flyway,” she said. “It’s a unique opportunity in the spring and fall to enjoy bird watching. It’s pretty amazing in this area.”

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Dockter said he envisions the park attracting kayakers and canoers from around the metro area. “It’s pretty shallow water here,” he said. “One of the unique things that I like about our river access in Cottage Grove is that if you’re not comfortable paddling on the main channel, this is a great spot to get on the Mississippi River and enjoy a paddle without the fear of floating down to the lock and dam (in Hastings).

“The vision is to have a water trail here,” he said. “You have state property on the south end, you’ve got city property, then county property, then (Mooers Park) … so there’s all these different stops that you could make along the water trail for recreational purposes. It could be a neat day, a neat weekend — it all depends on what all we build out.”

The new park will be open from sunrise to sunset.

Kayakers paddle along the shore at the former Mississippi Dunes Golf Course in Cottage Grove. The city recently purchased a 20-acre parcel of the former golf course for a city park on the Mississippi River. The new city park, Mississippi Dunes Reserve, is expected to open to the public by Sept. 1. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

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