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An effort to build a rowing center at a park in Orono has been put on hold after members of the Dayton family shared their opposition to it. 

Long Lake Rowing Crew (LLRC) has been working with the city for two years on an application to build a 7,600-square-foot boathouse and training facility at the 4.8-acre Summit Beach Park on Long Lake, which is Orono's largest swimming beach.

The land that is now Summit Beach used to belong to Bruce Dayton, the grandson of the founder of the Dayton's department store and father of former Gov. Mark Dayton, and his wife Ruth. They donated the land to the City of Orono in 1978. (They were advocates of preserving green space — in 1996, they donated more than 100 acres down the street from Summit Park to the state. It's now the Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area.)

Upon hearing the news that the Orono Planning Commission was set to discuss the boathouse application on Tuesday, Jan. 18, Dayton's four children sent a letter to the city expressing their opposition to the proposal, writing it is "out of keeping with the philanthropic intention of his gift for maximum conservation or natural beauty and general public use."

The letter states Bruce Dayton, who lived in Orono up till his death in 2015, loved the east side of Long Lake, noting "his whole vision was to remove and prevent all buildings of any kind" on that end of the lake.

The Dayton children asked the city to not approve of the boathouse proposal because it does not align with the intention of Bruce Dayton's "very generous and far-sighted original gift."

The letter also criticizes the City of Orono for providing just 72 hours notice over a holiday weekend for the scheduled Planning Commission meeting to discuss the proposed rowing center. Residents in Orono, including during Tuesday's meeting, have expressed a similar sentiment, accusing the city of moving forward with proposals without much community notice. 

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Proposal tabled

Long Lake Rowing Crew ended up asking the city to table its application and discussion on its proposal shortly before the start of Tuesday's meeting. 

In a statement on its website, LLRC said it has chosen to table its conditional use application for a proposed public-private partnership at the park "out of respect for the Dayton family's letter" and "to allow the City of Orono to respond and provide direction."

"We thank them [the Daytons] for preserving the natural beauty and quiet of Long Lake and share their dedication to this special place," the statement continued.

LLRC said it has been working for years to find a long-term home for the LLRC and has been transparent about its process, noting it shared preliminary plans with the Orono City Council in 2020. The council at the time encouraged LLRC to pursue a conditional use permit and had not been informed about any restrictions on the land that is Summit Park, LLRC said.

The organization says they are encouraged by the support they've received from residents and community partners, adding: "We look forward to an open, and accurate, sharing of our plans to find a long-term home for rowing in our community."

The Planning Commission did hear public comments on the proposal Tuesday evening in the event the application moves forward at a later time (you can watch it here). Several residents testified against the proposal, while the meeting's agenda packet included numerous letters of support for the rowing facility, including LLRC members and Orono residents. 

Jon Ressler, vice chairman of the Orono Planning Commission, said Tuesday it "appears very likely" the LLRC's application "may look partly or entirely different, if at all, at a later date."

Those who oppose the rowing facility at Summit Park have been vocal. They've formed a group called the Friends of Summit Beach Park, launching a Go Fund Me for a legal defense fund and a Change.org petition to urge the city to now allow any of the portion of the park to be privately developed. 

The group also says they found city documents from November 1979 signed by Bruce Dayton that instructs the city to not alter the natural setting of the land. Orono city administrator Adam Edwards told the Star Tribune they haven't found any legal restrictions placed on the land. 

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