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Chanhassen Park and Recreation explores Prince property for first time

Chanhassen Park and Recreation Director Todd Hoffman recently led a group of city officials on a walk through the future Lake Ann Park expansion.

After hearing so much about the pristine land that once belonged to the late rock star Prince Rogers Nelson, nestled along Lake Ann’s western shoreline it was time to see the property first hand. The small group included Mayor Elise Ryan, City Councilor Julia Coleman and members of the Chanhassen Parks and Recreation Commission.

“The purpose of the walk was to introduce the (Parks and Recreation) commission to the future acquisition through the housing plat,” Hoffman said, in a later interview. “The commissioners had not had an opportunity to see it. Everybody’s wanted to get into the property to take a look at it.”

The Chanhassen City Council approved rezoning 191 acres of property along Galpin Boulevard on March 11. The move allowed Lennar to develop 169 homes on the property. And it also preserved 100 acres of of public parkland adjacent to the existing 100-acre Lake Ann Park, through park dedication valued at $980,000 and a density transfer of 22 housing lots from the park area to the westerly development.

Of the park expansion, 55 acres are wooded upland property and 45 acres are wetland. It includes 6,400 feet of wooded shorelines on both Lake Ann and Lake Lucy, according to Hoffman.

HIKE

The weather for the May 29 tour was cool, bugs were nearly nonexistent. Above, the leafy trees provided a canopy from the late afternoon sun.

Hoffman led the group east, along the asphalt trail that goes past the fishing pier, to a city park and small sandy beach tucked just below the Greenwood Shores neighborhood.

From there, Hoffman led the way into the woods, by way of a well-worn path used by wildlife and nature lovers over the years.

One of the hikers commented that Prince didn’t mind if people walked the trails, as long as they stayed far enough away from his house.

Along the trail, at a narrow point, you can see Lake Ann to one side, and Lake Lucy on the other. And in the middle, someone had built a small fire pit, edged with rocks. It appears to have been well used over the years. And down the hill, on the shore of Lake Lucy, someone had placed a vinyl lawn chair. It looked like a good fishing spot.

Because of the wet spring, parts of the leaf- and twig-covered trail was spongy and thick with mud. Hoffman had advised wearing rubber boots for good reason.

The walk took the group 1.5 miles into the woods. Along the way, Hoffman brought the group to a clearing ringed by majestic old-growth trees. Hoffman called the clearing “The Cathedral.”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hoffman said. With its leafy canopy soaring high above them, the group marveled at the natural sanctuary in the middle of the forest, and paused to take photos.

As the hike continued, Hoffman pointed out various stands of trees and brush, noting where the buckthorn had taken over, but would be mitigated in the future; an area where an entire area of elm trees had toppled over; and areas where the forest was slowly regenerating, decaying oaks being replaced by maples.

The hikers walked up to the Gorra property that lies to the south of the Lennar development and the Lake Ann park addition. The trail made a loop and then Hoffman led the group back toward the park near Greenwood Shores. Round trip, the walk was three miles from the Lake Ann public boat access.

According to the city’s comprehensive plan, the Lake Ann trail will eventually continue along the shoreline, back to Lake Ann, creating a complete path.

For now, the Gorra property is still privately owned. If the property is purchased by a developer for a subdivision, the city will have the opportunity to negotiate with the developer to extend the parkland and trail as it has done with Lennar.

Commissioner Meredith Petouvis thanked Hoffman for the opportunity in an email.

“The tour was fantastic. Thank you for negotiating with Lennar to allow it, and thanks to Adam and his team for scouting and bridge building.

“I’m so glad to have experienced it first hand,” Petouvis wrote. “What a spectacular piece of land we are now able to preserve, protect and enjoy!”

WHAT’S NEXT

At Monday’s regular Chanhassen City Council meeting, the council approved a $45,000 feasibility study by HKGi for trail plan concepts and natural resource inventory on the Lake Ann Park expansion.

According to the staff report, “The goals of the future Lake Ann Park expansion plan is to preserve over 100 additional acres of shoreline, wetlands, and woodlands to the west of Lake Ann and Lake Lucy, including the land between the two lakes and to expand pedestrian trail routes and connections in the area.”

Hoffman said this will be three-month process over the summer, and the city is looking forward to involving the public and receiving input as the planning takes shape.


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Education
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Chanhassen High School's sensory room provides a safe space for students in special education

A sensory room is a quiet, calming space where a student with overwhelming feelings or emotions can retreat, decompress, and divert or still the mind.

Since March, students in the Chanhassen High School special education and Aspire programs have had access to this safe space. Students with emotional, cognitive and developmental disorders and disabilities can use the room at anytime during the school day for respite and escape.

The sensory room came to be, in part, inspired by a senior Capstone project in 2018, called the Yellow Umbrella. This group of students wanted to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues, and initiated an awareness campaign at the high school.

The campaign prompted a conversation among the school’s teachers, and prompted special education teachers Thomas Szewczyk and Chris Nett to look for ways to meet the needs of their students.

They discussed creating a sensory room in the high school with Assistant Principal Erin Swoboda. She gave the nod, and a room in a quiet corner of the high school was transformed into a simple, but effective, sensory room.

With the financial help of a grant from the District 112 Foundation, the school was able to outfit the room.

CALMING SPACE

Student Nick Hanson, along with Szewczyk, provided a tour of the room near the end of the school year.

With the overhead lights turned off, Nick demonstrated the light machine that projects calming color patterns on the walls and ceiling. An “aquarium” bubbles with plastic fish and water, fun to watch in the darkened room.

On the floor is a liquid dance floor. Each of the blocks of this vinyl mat are filled with colored gel that moves when stepped on. A hammock chair is in one end of the room, capable of soothingly enveloping its occupant.

A small plastic cabinet of drawers on the table contains a variety of fidgets, from those that spin to those that can be squeezed, stretched and bounced. A gaming chair, outfitted with built-in speakers, enables students to plug in their cell phones and play music. A weighted blanket, known for its ability to soothe, is folded up on a chair, ready for use.

Szewczyk works primarily with students in grades 9-12 with autism. He has seven students in his classroom all day, with additional students who come in for certain subjects. Szewczyk teaches reading, writing, math and social skills. He works with each student based on individual needs.

He’s seen a marked difference in his students since the sensory room was created.

“Before kids would walk out of classes and just walk the halls. It’s when they get frustrated, or are looking to avoid a task or a situation, then they’d go out into the hallway to give themselves a bigger space.

“In the sensory room, it’s a quiet place and they can pick an activity and calm down. It teaches them not to go into crisis mode, but learn management and situational control. They learn to take a break and how to intervene before there is a crisis.”

Other teachers in the school have noticed a difference, too, Szewczyk said, mentioning that his and Nett’s students “have really mellowed out a lot.”

“I think the staff, they really look at it favorably,” Nett said. “It’s one more tool in our toolbox for those kids that need to take that break. And when they come back, the difference in demeanor, how they react, act, is notable. There’s been positive feedback in the general education classes.

“If they don’t have supports,” Nett said, “kids are more likely to fail classes, have more behavior problems. Our approach with all teachers and staff is we don’t look at the behavior but what caused or triggered the behavior. That’s the difference between a suspension and a reprimand. “

‘ONE OF THOSE KIDS’

Amy Stone, a paraprofessional working with Szewczyk and Nett has worked at the district for 18 years and has a perspective on the sensory room. “That’s because I was one of those kids,” Stone said. She graduated from Chaska High School, and was diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder.

“So I’ve come full circle,” Stone said, and laughed. “I feel I’ve been here forever.”

“It’s (sensory room) so needed. I mean, any kid needs a break throughout the day,” Stone said. “And these kids especially just need to get away from everybody, to regroup, to a place to go where they are safe.”

Stone said she dealt with depression as a student. After high school, she attended Hennepin Technical College for child development. “Once I was through, I realized, ‘I’m no dummy ... and now I have a husband and two kids.

“My No. 1 thing here at school is building rapport with the kids. Some don’t have a safe place at home and they need someone who’s there for them day in and day out. I know having that when I went to high school was amazing for me. So I want to make it amazing for other students.

Stone is encouraged to see that over the years, teachers are more mental health aware. She sees how having a student commons and the daily 20-minute break and flex education has helped all students, especially the students in special education.

‘IT’S HEAVEN’

Before the end of the hour, one of Szewczyk’s students wanted to provide his input. He didn’t want to give his name, but did describe his take on the sensory room.

“It is heaven,” he said. “I like everything about it. It puts confidence in myself. It helps me try to think about the lighter side of things. It makes being in school a lot better.”

“This is a school of 1,700 students,” Nett said. “It’s a beehive of activity and it can be a huge amount of sensory overload with noises, sounds and smells. The idea that they can have a spot to take a break or escape? It’s been an awesome addition to the building.”