Private community established by James J. Hill family battles over undeveloped land

The city that is now North Oaks was purchased by James J. Hill in 1883 and turned into a 5,000-acre research farm.

North Oaks, Minnesota. (City of North Oaks/Facebook)

A dispute over one of the last-remaining parcels of undeveloped land in a private St. Paul suburb established by the heirs of railroad magnate James J. Hill has the local community scrambling for answers just a week before the election.

History 

The city that is now North Oaks was purchased by Hill in 1883 and turned into a 5,000-acre research farm. Hill’s son, Louis, inherited the land after his father’s death in 1916. Ownership of the land then transferred to Louis’ children, including Louis Hill, Jr., who in the early 1950s began developing the land into a residential community. Following Louis Hill, Jr.’s death in 1995, his daughter Mari Hill Harpur and her husband Doug Harpur established the North Oaks Company (Company) in 1996. The Company is the owner of the remaining undeveloped parcels.

In 1999, the Company and the City of North Oaks (City) entered into a Planned Development Agreement, a binding contract permitting the Company to develop neighborhoods across 1,650 acres over a period of three decades. At the time, the Company designated approximately 900 of the 1,650 acres for a conservation easement managed by the Minnesota Land Trust, keeping in line with the Hill family’s vision to develop the area with respect for the natural environment.

At a June 9 meeting, the North Oaks Planning Commission unanimously approved the preliminary development plan for 12 lots in the Nord Parcel after nearly 18 months of deliberations. The Nord Parcel comprises some of the last acreage to be developed under the 1999 agreement.

According to a September letter from City Council Member Rick Kingston to the full City Council, the “12 lot Nord Parcel is one of the most extensively vetted neighborhoods in the history of North Oaks.”

The process has involved reviews from the Vadnais Lakes Area Water Management Organization, the “city arborist, two independent city attorneys, three city engineers, two city administrators, the Planning Commission, multiple Company consultants, and [the North Oaks Home Owners’ Association], over a period of approximately 18 months,” said Kingston.

Council Member Kara Ries, who’s running for mayor in the upcoming election, has been one of the loudest voices of dissent throughout the process. According to various City Council meetings reviewed by Alpha News, Ries has expressed concern about what she perceives to be the environmental impact of the Nord Parcel and the “carte blanche” arrangement provided to the Company under the 1999 agreement.

Vote of no confidence 

Ries’ objections to the 1999 agreement reached a fever pitch over the summer when she recruited a University of Minnesota professor, Dr. Joe Magner, to conduct another review of the groundwater levels on the Nord Parcel site.

Ries notified the City Council at a June 11 meeting that she had contacted the university, and “they were kind enough to not only take my call but to inspect the site.” According to Ries, she had contacted Dr. Magner on June 10 and he had agreed to visit the site with her that day, and managed to submit his review of the site in time for the June 11 meeting.

Magner’s letter raised concerns about standing water in some areas of the development and other “potential water issues.”

Ries was asked during the meeting if she was aware if Dr. Magner is related to a North Oaks resident with the same last name who had signed a petition opposing the Nord Parcel development and whose “property is adjacent” to another of the development sites, according to Council Member Kingston’s letter.

“I don’t have any idea,” she responded.

City Administrator Kevin Kress subsequently contacted Dr. Magner and learned that Council Member Ries and Dr. Magner had discussed the potential for a conflict of interest.

“During that brief conversation Mr. Kress learned that not only was Dr. Magner aware of a potential conflict of interest given his family connection to the Development, but he and Ms. Ries had discussed the potential conflict of interest and both elected not to disclose it in or with his June 10 opinion or at any time thereafter,” Kingston said in his letter.

Based on this and other information, and the lack of due process, the Company filed two formal written complaints with the City regarding the behavior of Council Member Ries and Dr. Magner.

The City Council then convened on July 27 for a special meeting to discuss the Company’s complaints.

“This is a question about whether you misrepresented material facts to your City Council members,” said Mayor Gregg Nelson. “Are you alleging that all of your representations at the June 11 meeting, all of your representations to the City Council were accurate and truthful?”

“All of them? I would have to go back and review all of what I said,” Ries replied.

“All of them. Yep. Did you tell the truth the whole time?” Nelson said, to which Ries responded vaguely.

“That’s what I thought. Thank you,” said the mayor, who alleged that Ries’ actions were “intended to confuse the City Council” by “bringing in a last-minute report.”

Ries maintained that Dr. Magner’s relationship to a resident was “completely irrelevant” because of the professor’s expertise in hydrology and watershed management.

“I think we’re parsing hairs here in saying I misrepresented something,” said Ries.

Entrance to the City of North Oaks. (Image from North Oaks Company website)

Another point of concern raised by Ries’ fellow council members was the fact that she brought Dr. Magner to conduct a review of the site without following proper procedures, including seeking permission from the Company — the typical process for requesting a tour of the land, Nelson said. All of the land in North Oaks, including the roads, is private property. The development land is the Company’s private property.

“I think you’re missing the point here,” Kingston replied to Ries. “It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not there’s an actual conflict of interest here. It’s about disclosure. Kevin talked to Dr. Magner afterwards and he said you knew he was related to an individual that signed the petition against the development and you didn’t disclose that when you were asked. It’s as simple as that.”

Ries then accused Kingston of “literally conducting a Salem witch trial” by “looking into Facebook posts and accusing [her] of things.”

The City Council revisited the matter at an August 13 meeting, at which point Dr. Magner had cut off all communication with city leaders. According to Kingston’s letter, he believes an ethics complaint is warranted against the professor with the University of Minnesota.

“The circumstances warrant an ethics investigation regarding Dr. Magner’s involvement in  this issue. As a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, I know the conflict of interest rules, as should Dr. Magner and it is appropriate to file a complaint in these circumstances. Ms. Ries was relying on Dr. Magner’s opinion to influence the vote on a multi-million dollar project in favor of denying the development. Such a denial would benefit those opposed to the development including Dr. Magner’s relative,” Kingston explained.

At the August 13 meeting, the City Council moved to take a vote of no confidence against Ries, which prevailed in a vote of 3-1, with a new council member abstaining and Ries voting against.

Further muddying the waters is a September police report out of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office alleging that former North Oaks Mayor Tom Watson assaulted Mayor Nelson after a 2019 City Council meeting.

The officer who filed the report said he was asked to attend the April 2019 meeting “due to it being attended in large numbers and a large number of people in attendance who were upset over proposed unit development (PUD) plans that North Oaks Company was presenting to the City of North Oaks.”

“One of the critics of the proposed unit development was Thomas Watson, who is a former mayor of North Oaks. Watson was the mayor in 1998 when the original PUD documents were created. Watson had a group of followers that were also against the current development plans of North Oaks Company,” states the police report.

Nelson won’t be seeking reelection but Watson is running for a seat on the City Council.