In the shadow of Nathan Hale, a small dispute over a small slice of land

Nathan Hale Park
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Nathan Hale Park is a triangular green nestled in the elbow of Summit Avenue.

In 1913, when the City of St. Paul purchased the small triangle of land at the corner of Portland and Summit Avenues, it marked the fulfillment of long-held wishes. The Carpenter family, the Victorian-era landowners, had tried for years to preserve a pair of triangular pieces of their land as city parks, and in 1909, as part of the parkland push, a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a noble statue to seal the deal.

It was a lovely sculpture, a life-size likeness of Revolutionary War icon Nathan Hale, crafted by famous East Coast sculptor William Ordway Partridge. According to the extensive historical research on the public artwork, the statue was the first such Nathan Hale tribute west of Ohio.

Over a century later, the park remains a triangular green nestled in the elbow of Summit Avenue, the city’s most elegant street. Hale still stands watch, observing the cars parading by or the occasional wintertime skaters, when part of the small park is flooded with a rink.

But in one corner of the Nathan Hale Park, a problem popped up this year when a neighboring fence mistakenly truncated a slim margin of land. The remnant corner has thrown a dispute into the jurisdiction of the city’s otherwise obscure Parks & Recreation Commission.

”When the parkland was purchased by the city [in 1913], it had just such an odd angle to it,” said Tucker Carlson, who owns the Portland Avenue house next door to Nathan Hale Park. (For the record, Carlson is not connected to the famous TV host with the same name; however, he is the son of former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson.)

When the Carlsons bought the house a few years ago they were led to believe, mistakenly, that a triangle of yard between their walkway and the park was part of the property.

“The piece of land that we’re on was, for the majority of time, one single property,” Carlson said, explaining the park conundrum. “We trusted the previous owner and his real estate agent as they walked the property with us. Where the park land comes across the property, they presented to us a small triangle. We looked at the GIS map, and didn’t have it surveyed at the time. We just trusted them and purchased the house.”

Soon after, the Carlsons did some landscaping to their new home, erecting a small metal fence to edge their front yard.

But as it turned out, the property line ran at an angle and the fence straddled both sides of the park property line. After a complaint from a historically astute park visitor, the Carlsons had a dilemma.

“The piece of land looks like it belongs to this house, but is actually parkland,” explained Carlson. “It hasn’t been maintained by the Parks Department for who knows how long. The previous owner even did some landscaping on there. They even put in a sprinkler system.”

The fence straddled both sides of the park property line.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The Portland Avenue property line ran at an angle and the fence, shown above, straddled both sides of the park property line.
Faced with the problem, and under the stern gaze of Nathan Hale, the Carlsons petitioned the city for a diversion of a small slice of city parkland. (A “diversion” is the oddly technical term for selling off municipal park land.) Explaining what happened, the Carlsons drafted a proposal to purchase some of the park from the city and have the marginal ground — now less than 1,000 square feet — transferred from the city rolls.

The process proved to be a bit complicated, especially once the city’s Parks Department weighed in opposing the request.

According to city staff, St. Paul’s official policy is to only grant sales of parkland in cases where a clear financial hardship is presented. On wealthy Summit Avenue, that’s almost an impossibility.

”We routinely get requests to purchase easements for parkland, often for utilities,” explained Paul Sawyer, a management assistant for the St. Paul Parks and Recreation department. “One of the big things we take a look at when we get applications in is whether there’s a hardship at play. We look for circumstances unique to the property, or somebody presenting an application where they’re prevented from being able to use property in a reasonable way. For example, industrial properties that are landlocked who need to get utilities into the site would be a hardship where we might be willing to divert parkland.”

For cities with many parks rubbing shoulders with residential and industrial users, these conflicts come up repeatedly. Requests for diversions, easements, and the like are the sorts of problems that quickly fill parks-related meeting agendas.

“Generally I try to do what would do the greatest good for the most people, a utilitarian philosophy,” explained Chris Meyer, one of the nine members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

(Note that Minneapolis is relatively unique among municipal governments in that it has a separately elected Park Board, distinct from other branches of city government. In St. Paul, as in most cities, parks commissioners are appointed rather than elected, and serve a largely advisory role to elected officials.)

In his year on the Minneapolis Park Board, Meyer has faced many issues of diversions or easements, and has managed to work a nuanced position. For example, he explained that in many cases, he defers to commissioners more familiar with specific areas where they live.

On the other hand, when it comes to things like driveway access or curb cuts for cars, Meyer often votes to deny requests.

“We’ve had requests around the lakes for new curb cut access,” Meyer told me. “We turned down one around Lake of the Isles where [someone] wanted a new curb cut.”

Another such case came up recently along West River Parkway, near the shadow of downtown, when a new apartment building wanted to build a driveway into the parkway. (The request was denied.)

In the case of St. Paul’s Nathan Hale park, however, a settlement seems more likely, despite the city’s official opposition to the diversion request.

For his part, Tucker Carlson does not hold a grudge about the Parks & Recreation Commission’s stance against the plan. Instead, he’s taken pains to empathize with the official position of the city, even while campaigning for some leniency in his case.

“The Parks Commission is doing just what they’re supposed to be doing,” Carlson said, having gone through a few steps of the delicate process. “To try to do this properly, we proposed purchasing a piece of land. But it’s a negotiation with the Parks Commission.”

For one thing, the Carlsons received the support of the local Summit-University neighborhood group, an encouraging sign. But then, meeting with the six-member Parks & Recreation Commission, their proposal was denied on a tie vote.

A month later, the Carlsons tried again, this time for a smaller piece of land at the margins of Nathan Hale Park. This time it was approved.

Courtesy of Tucker Carlson
The Carlsons drafted a proposal to purchase some of the park from the city and have the marginal ground transferred from the city rolls.
The next steps are for the diversion proposal to go to an official committee and for the sliver of land to be properly appraised for a sale to the neighbors. If the deal is approved by the City Council — and by order of the City Charter, the diversion requires a 2/3 supermajority — the land swap becomes final.

If Nathan Hale were alive, one can imagine him taking a stubborn stance regarding his small triangle of land. After all, he was a defiant martyr.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to imagine Hale, clearly no fan of unnecessary imperial restrictions, as more empathetic. One might hear him saying, “I only regret that I have but 700 square feet of parkland to lose to my neighbor.”

Personally, I think he’d understand.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/19/2018 - 05:05 pm.

    Sorry, Mr. Carlson, but I vote “no”. Check with your title insurer to determine whether you have a remedy, if they are not already involved in this effort.

  2. Submitted by Tyler Paulus on 10/19/2018 - 05:44 pm.

    Stories like this are a big part of why I come back to Minnpost. Thanks Bill.

  3. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/19/2018 - 06:25 pm.

    I hesitate to assess from the distance of my armchair, but from what the article says, as a city council member I would be hard-pressed to approve this one. The failure to procure a survey before buying a nice piece of real estate falls directly on the Carlsons – as I’m sure Mr. Carlson well knows, you don’t get to “trust[ ] the previous owner and his real estate agent” as to where your property boundary is. And the fact that the Carlsons would need to move a “small metal fence” hardly counts as the type of hardship to justify alienating a piece of public parkland. (Nor is 1,000 square feet a “small slice” of land – it’s about a quarter of my lot.) I also would wonder whether the 1913 dedication of the parkland didn’t forbid its conveyance into private hands, but apparently it didn’t.

    The law specifically exempts public land from the doctrine of “adverse possession” – where a neighbor can gain title to some of your land simply by having encroached on it long enough without your objection. The reason, I would presume, is that those owning property adjacent to public land, not subject to the vigilance of an owner who occupies the property and has a direct financial interest in keeping an eye open, tend to treat the land as their own, over time, to the detriment of the public as a whole.

    It also is often the case that those who live next to parkland have fairly high-valued property, which typically goes along with being of reasonable means, which typically goes along with being treated fairly gingerly by public officials who, by the nature of things, have a greater incentive to meet the desire of the well-represented individual than to protect the collective but diffuse public interest.

  4. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 10/19/2018 - 09:34 pm.

    Tucker, you’re starting to sound like Donald Trump. I’ll just play dumb. Someone of your stature would clearly have title insurance And a survey.. I’ve seen this happen too many times, when people with money just assume it’s there’s. It’s not. Your Dad would never pull this kind of crap. So do the right thing and put your damn fence on your own damn property. Good lord!

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/19/2018 - 09:40 pm.

    This is why an oral contract is a legal contract, except for real estate law. For Pete’s sake, get a survey before you buy.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/20/2018 - 02:54 am.

    Interesting difference in the Twin Cities- in Minneapolis this would never fly as that land could be used for constructing a triangular fourplex, a bike lane spur or scooter docking.

    • Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 10/20/2018 - 08:39 pm.

      Except that Mr. Hess’ references are to City of Minneapolis efforts. Here we’re talking about park land. The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is a completely separate entity with interests beyond the boundaries of the city of Minneapolis. It might be a different story with the Park Board, but in what way, I’m not sure.

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/21/2018 - 08:13 am.

        It was a joke. If you followed Minneapolis 2040 issues you’d recognize some of the more polarizing land use discussions currently underway across the River.

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/20/2018 - 08:31 am.

    From this perspective it’s not an odd angle at all.

  8. Submitted by Tomomi Watanabe on 10/20/2018 - 11:10 am.

    Fascinating story. I really don’t know what to think. I can empathize with the Carlsons, but the city’s position seems to be the more relevant precedent. I hope MinnPost keeps us updated on this story as it develops.

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/22/2018 - 08:27 am.

    Approved by the neighborhood group, approved by the parks and rec board. Slice of land lies directly in front of his front door: not a place where one would spread their picnic blanket. Seems OK.

    If only his late mother, Barbara Carlson, could be here to lobby in his defense. A perfect place for her hot tub… RIP Babs….

  10. Submitted by Chris Steller on 10/22/2018 - 09:55 am.

    I think Nathan Hale would say, “My hands are tied.”

  11. Submitted by Kevin Powers on 10/23/2018 - 09:24 am.

    Tom Anderson raises a good point referencing the Ramsey County GIS site. Nathan Hale park and other triangular parks in neighborhood are clearly defined, as is the Carlson’s lot. This strikes me as a bid by Carlson to broaden his front yard.

  12. Submitted by William Lindeke on 10/22/2018 - 11:02 am.

    The point of including MPRB was that these kinds of situations come up all the time for Parks’ Departments, and their elected officials have more public accountability in these cases IMO.

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