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.