Lake Elmo and the Misconceptions of “Growth”

Critics say Lake Elmo’s anti-growth bias is obvious when you look at what’s happened in neighboring cities. Those neighbors have eagerly welcomed malls, factories, offices. - from the Pioneer Press, Jan. 29, 2012, Lake Elmo: Small, and shrinking

To those unfamiliar, Lake Elmo is a quaint, little town east of St. Paul. Lake Elmo provides a positive break in the otherwise endless and monotonous rows of snout house, vinyl-clad subdivisions and cul-de-sacs of the east metro. The town held its own throughout the years of combative suburban land use practices and lawsuits. And today, minus a few sub-division here and there, it has maintained its rural village character while its neighbors to the north, south, east and west have sprawled out.

In an effort to stop leap-frog development, a 2003 lawsuit from the Metropolitan Council mandated Lake Elmo accommodate growth within its boundaries – and businesses and developers appear to have been pestering Lake Elmo ever since. A Pioneer Press article from earlier this week (“Lake Elmo: Small, and shrinking“) addressed recent concerns from some in the local business community.

The city is shrinking as landowners yank their property out in favor of neighboring areas. Landowners say they are fleeing a bias against business that prevents them from building stores, offices or malls along busy highways. [Pioneer Press, Jan. 29, 2012].

The article was sparked by a 58 acre parcel in the northeast corner of Lake Elmo moving into the hands of Stillwater Township (which will likely become a strip mall by year’s end). Other land owners, especially those along bordering suburbs, are actively trying to remove small parcels from Lake Elmo’s control. The article continues:

City officials say they favor growth – as long as they can preserve the city’s image as a slow-paced rural enclave.

“I love Lake Elmo. It is a jewel. But it can be so easily changed, and if you mess it up, you can’t return it,” said former Mayor Susan Dunn. “We don’t need places with a million lights and flashing neon.”

It seems to be that Lake Elmo isn’t so much ‘anti-growth‘, but more so ‘carefully planning to preserve a worthwhile local culture.  Well, what do the critics have to say about it?

Critics say Lake Elmo’s anti-growth bias is obvious when you look at what’s happened in neighboring cities. Those neighbors have eagerly welcomed malls, factories, offices. Businesses pay a higher property tax rate, employ people and draw people into a community.

[...] Lake Elmo is roughly the geographic size of Woodbury, with similar access to freeways. But it has one-eighth the population, and one- fifteenth the retail sales. That is the result of the city’s long history of avoiding, discouraging or fighting growth.

First of all, when they say “growth” they are referring to what Strong Towns calls The Growth Ponzi Scheme”. In other words, that our current financial problems at the local level are not, as some suggest, a lack of growth. Yet, our problem is 60 years of unproductive growth — “growth that has buried us in financial liabilities.” Lake Elmo has few of these liabilities, whereas places like neighboring Woodbury have many.

Fact of the matter is, Lake Elmo will likely be in a better financial position in the long-run because it doesn’t have “growth” (and the long-term liabilities that come with such financially unproductive land uses). In a nutshell, this article plays off our misconceptions of growth – that any new development must be good for the community as long as it a brings near-term property tax increase. This mindset, so embedded into our cultural vernacular, needs to change.

Lake Elmo  saved itself at the expense of others, of whom now struggle with growth in an age of economic austerity. It’s hard to feel bad for those communities though, they welcomed “growth” with open arms.

It doesn’t appear if stopping sprawl was ever one of Lake Elmo’s primary goals; the town merely wants to maintain rural character and charm. Over the last two decades, Lake Elmo seems unfazed by sprawl happening elsewhere – they just didn’t want it in their backyard. In reading the article, you’ll discover that Lake Elmo did created an unfortunate zoning code that favors one home per 2 acres, which can be classified as ‘rural sprawl’. Yet, this sprawl never really happened because of the municipality’s unwillingness to extend sewerage lines and more difficult and rigorous approval process. Now , as it stands today, Lake Elmo revised its master plan to promote development near its existing downtown-village-like infrastructure.

The article continues:

Lake Elmo officials have often vowed that their small town would never become “another Woodbury” – saying that the fast-growing city is too commercial and too densely developed. But landowner Nass thinks otherwise.

“I wish we were like another Woodbury,” Nass said. “Woodbury is successful, to my way of thinking.”

Interesting. He wishes it were like another Woodbury? When someone mentions Woodbury, I think of this:

Epic sprawl. Large roads. Malls. Big boxes. Underwater mortgages, and I can’t help but think the Arcade Fire specifically sings about Woodbury. Lake Elmo on the other hand is pastoral, pleasant, scenic, appropriately-scaled to a rural economy and has a walkable small-town downtown residential neighborhood. It has interesting buildings and working farms. For me, Lake Elmo is a place. Woodbury isn’t.

Let’s bring it around to how this article started, with a quote:

Critics say Lake Elmo’s anti-growth bias is obvious when you look at what’s happened in neighboring cities. Those neighbors have eagerly welcomed malls, factories, offices.

Is Lake Elmo “anti-growth”?

Not really. The town just wants growth in the right places. And can you fault them? Certainly, this country doesn’t need another third-ring suburb.

If Lake Elmo’s critics would have spent 15 minutes glancing over the town’s master plan, they would’ve realized numerous parcels of land are available for commercial, mixed-use and single-family home developments. To developers frustration, it just so happens, none of these places happen to be along the interstate and none of them will allow them to put up a cinder-block box.

This isn’t to say Lake Elmo is a utopia. It’s not perfect, and there is no question in my mind that the town’s restrictive regulations did result in leap frog sprawl that now extends into Wisconsin (and may need a new, expensive bridge to accommodate). Yet, the damage is done. Damage has been halted by a housing / financial / jobs crisis. The sprawl is not likely to be built anytime soon; and unfortunately, neither is Lake Elmo’s master plan.


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4 Responses to Lake Elmo and the Misconceptions of “Growth”

  1. Mike Hicks February 1, 2012 at 4:07 am #

    I was surprised to learn about Lake Elmo's stance — I always thought they were acting like backers of epic-scale exurban sprawl, like many other places. You mentioned a 2-acre rule that never quite panned out — It's kind of scary when they do go into effect. Up in Ramsey, for instance, there are whole tracts of super-sized city grids where each two-acre plot has actually been cleared of most of its trees to make a gigantic lawn! That's definitely not maintaining a rural character.

    In general, I think having some municipalities around that want to avoid development is a good thing. The Twin Cities area has sprawled much more than I like, and it's essential to preserve as much land as possible for future generations. At the same time, I don't really feel that Lake Elmo has gone about things in the right way.

    If they want to have a village surrounded by a pastoral landscape, I feel that the village area itself needs to be more intensely developed. I'd personally advocate a plan that follows the pattern of old main streets in this part of the country and includes some small apartments and rowhouses nearby. Rather than requiring large lots, houses and other buildings should actually be put on lots that are as small as possible. In my opinion, a true village is a pretty tightly-packed place.

    I don't feel that you can preserve a rural landscape by enforcing a low ceiling on population density — people will just sprawl out everywhere. It's better to let people cluster close together, alleviating the demand for sprawl in the first place.

  2. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel February 1, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    Great points Mike. Thanks for reading.

    The 2-acre rule, I believe, is in effect for most areas outside the village that haven't been slated as agriculture or open space/wetlands. However, inside the Old Village (what they call it), housing development is a mixture of medium density and TND. It doesn't strictly follow the old street grid, but it does connect with it.

  3. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon February 5, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    I would classify much of Lake Elmo as a "third-ring" suburb – sprawling lots, no sidewalks, woody enclaves. The "village" portion seems to be being developed as an afterthought, possibly based on the requirement imposed on them by the Metropolitan Council to accommodate their share of regional growth.

    Lake Elmo does not exist in a vacuum. They benefit from close proximity to freeways and job centers like St. Paul, Woodbury and Maplewood. From a regional perspective, does it make more sense for Lake Elmo to accommodate more growth, or by restricting development there, push development to even more sprawling locations further east?

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel February 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Lake Elmo as a 3rd ring suburb with "sprawling lots, no sidewalks, woody enclaves" is an accurate description. You're absolutely right in saying that the Old Village plan was an afterthought brought forth as a result of a lawsuit from the Met Council.

      I think I may have failed in articulating this, but I have mixed feelings about Lake Elmo. On one hand, I'm glad it isn't another Woodbury, but its hard to deny that isn't a failure from a regional planning prospective (as it did help push development past the St. Croix). It is sprawling (with some very large and under-utilized four-lane roads) and isn't in a vacuum. Very true. But I think we can take the current situation and position the place for more sustainable future development centered around an existing town center. In that sense, the Old Village plan isn't too bad. Of course, this still ignores the fact that there are exits of 94 / 36 that might be wise to use as possible industrial zones, etc.