Transit Oriented Sprawl in Sherburne County

sherburne-countySherburne County lies between the two metropolitan areas of St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. Highway 10 will take you directly from St. Paul to St. Cloud, passing through Elk River, Big Lake, Becker and Clear Lake. US Census data indicates that the county’s population more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, from roughly 42,000 inhabitants to 88,000. In 2009, the Northstar commuter rail line began service between Minneapolis and Big Lake, with feeder bus service to downtown St. Cloud with a stop in Becker.

While cities like Big Lake and Elk River claim to focus on developing transit oriented communities, time has shown us how much of the growth has instead spilled into the rural townships that foster a lifestyle heavily dependent on private vehicle ownership. The negative consequences of automobile dependency include social isolation, discrimination against those unable to legally drive (usually the poor, young, elderly and disabled), and increased expenses related to gasoline costs, car maintenance, and road repair/snow removal. Here’s an article if you’d like more information on the costs of automobile dependency, and I believe they are even higher for developments located in otherwise rural areas.


Eventually, this brings you to a cul-de-sac.

The cities of Sherburne County are all relatively small; Elk River, the county seat, had a population of 22,000 according to the 2010 census. Having grown up in rural Sherburne County, I’ve seen firsthand how common it is for residents to travel to larger cities to access more services. This is nothing new for those familiar with country living, but with so many housing developments located outside of the already small towns, this means everybody’s simplest errand requires getting in the car. While public transportation exists in the area, service frequency isn’t standard across the county. For example, Tri-Cap (the county’s social service provider) operates an affordable dial-a-ride service from 6 AM to 6 PM Monday through Friday within the city limits of Elk River. With Elk River occupying 44 square miles of land, this is particularly useful to those living in the “rural residential” areas which account for 13% of land use in the city according to it’s 2013 comprehensive plan. But Tri-Cap service becomes less frequent in Becker and Big Lake, and more expensive in their respective townships, where the consequences of sprawl truly take form.

Of course, a discussion of transportation in Sherburne County can’t leave out the Northstar commuter rail line, which was built during the time of heavy growth in the mid-2000s. But a closer look at the development and location of the stations reveals how they actually seem to support the suburban lifestyle, rather than development of transit-oriented communities. Instead of integrating into existing densely populated areas, the rail platforms in Big Lake and Elk River were built on the periphery of the city center. The cities are hoping to see the land surrounding the stations developed into the type of dense, mixed-use areas that make up traditional transit-oriented communities. While annual Northstar ridership has topped 700,000 every year since it’s inception, development around the Big Lake station has been especially slow.


Land for sale near the Big Lake Northstar station.

And why should that come as any surprise?

With 581 free surface level parking spots, it’s easy to see the justification for living in a rural subdivision that’s only accessible by car, especially among commuters already comfortable with driving long distances. Even with an affordable demand-responsive transportation provider, the Elk River station gives the automobile driver 754 free spaces to park their car.

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This Wired article explains how the same problem is facing developers on a larger scale in California in response to the proposed high-speed rail line linking San Francisco and Los Angeles. While city planners generally welcome transit hubs to their community, they are concerned that, if improperly located, the stations will actually increase sprawl by encouraging people to drive to rail stations instead of walking, biking or taking the bus. Yes, the scale and population of the Twin Cities and St. Cloud is relatively small compared to the proposed California system. But the consequences of our land use planning appear to resemble the California planners’ worst fears, and then some! While planners focus their efforts on solving the “last mile challenge” that people face after they get off the bus or train, recent development patterns in Sherburne county create more of a “last 10 mile problem” for residents.

Here are some real world examples from Becker and Big Lake townships:



Timberquest is a typical example of a sub-development in Sherburne County. It’s located about 7.3 miles north of Big Lake Station, with access to the city of Big Lake reliant on a two-lane county road. On my weekend visit the streets were nearly void of foot and vehicle traffic despite the smattering of single-family houses and relatively warm weather. I could pretty much park wherever I wanted and walk around the streets at my own pace.

The strange irony of places like Timberquest, and the developments that surround it, lies with their back-to-nature names. If a potential homeowner wanted to live in a community that truly valued nature and the preservation of native ecosystems, then fragmenting the countryside with asphalt roads, mowed lawns, and chlorinated swimming pools would seem counterintuitive.

Bringing the suburbs to the forest

Invest in nature

Since this is a transportation site, I won’t go too far on an environmental tangent. But the effects of exurban and suburban sprawl on wildlife and habitat loss are well documented, which I equate as a lose-lose equation for all the living residents of these neighborhoods. The humans live less healthy lives due to their dependence on vehicles, which is a choice forced upon them by a decision to fragment and disrupt the patterns of the native, non-human inhabitants.


181st Avenue in Becker Township.

This desolate stretch of asphalt seems to have been forgotten somewhere in the planning process, although obviously it still gets plowed periodically. This is 181st Avenue in Becker Township, located 8 miles east of the Becker park and ride via multiple two-lane county roads. While it offers quiet solitude that can only be rivaled by the abutting farm field, don’t get your hopes up. The land on both sides of this street has been developed into two separate homes. And, no, neither one of them use 181st Avenue.

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The Shores by Eagle Lake.

Back in Big Lake Township lies “The Shores by Eagle Lake”, located 7 miles north of the Big Lake Station. From the December 4, 2000 edition of the Sherburne County Citizen:

Plans are to include shops, golf, restaurants, exhibition hall, meeting rooms, health club, entertainment center, banquet halls and other services. A hotel complex, entertainment center and clubhouse would be built on the property. There are also plans for 172 timeshare units in three buildings, 35 individual year-round cottages, 20 corporate townhomes in four buildings and 29 attached corporate villas. Thirty single family lots are also planned.


A snowy road by empty lots.

Obviously, none of that happened. The real estate market crashed, hardly any buildings went up, and the entrances were barricaded. It was stuck in legal limbo for some time, which gave locals a place to walk dogs, play on ATVs and express novice graffiti skills. That is, until late 2015, when two new homes and a fresh marketing sign seemed to breath some life into the project.


Shores: take two.

I’ll be honest, I have no desire to see this place succeed as a housing development. Like Timberquest, it’s located between Eagle Lake and the Sand Dunes state forest, further severing any hopes of an established wildlife corridor. It’s distance from the city of Big Lake ensures that getting to town without a car will mostly be restricted to a weekend hobby at best. I’d at least like to see something along the lines of “community garden” on that sign, but explore some of the nearby neighborhoods and you’ll be lucky to find a vegetable patch surviving in the patchwork of mowed sod, outbuildings and privacy hedges.

The land use of many residents feels like a contradiction out here. Sure, the developments are suburban in density, but you can’t avoid passing miles of farm field and forests to get to them. Rather than using the land to reduce the amount of trips made by residents and weaken their reliance on distant retailers and employers, many of the people who call these developments home are forced to consume an incredible amount of resources in their daily lives.

And yet, brand new homes continue to be built and people continue to buy them.

While the presence of the Northstar rail line cuts down on long commute times, it is a far cry from the development goals of true transit oriented development that Elk River and Big Lake claim to be striving for. In an area that’s spent the past two decades reaffirming American car culture, I think the vision of dense residential blocks of townhomes and apartments will need to be re-evaluated.


The Northstar rail reaches its end.


About Alex Rowland

Alex lives 'car-lite' on a farm in rural Becker Township. He studies the three interrelated fields of land use, permaculture and ecology.