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.

28 thoughts on “Transit Oriented Sprawl in Sherburne County

  1. John Charles Wilson

    Big mistake not putting the Northstar stations closer to downtown Elk River and Big Lake. There’d probably be more visitor traffic on weekends if that were the case. As it stands, these stations are almost worthless to anyone without a car.

  2. Monte Castleman

    It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s not a lot of interest. If you’re the type that can’t afford anything else / doesn’t mind / likes living in multi-family housing there’s plenty of condos and townhomes a lot closer in that don’t require a long train ride to get to work or hang out on the weekends.

  3. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    My “cabin” is three miles from the Big Lake Station. I say “cabin” because it is not really a cabin. It is my step grandparents’ house that they raised their eight children in. After they passed, my stepdad owns it and uses it on a cabin. It has all the cabin stuff – pontoon on the lake, kayaks, fire pit, ancient boat house, etc. But, it is a place where people live all year and where my family lived all year for decades.

    Despite being a very car-lite family we have never used to train to get there although we could easily bike from the station. Round trip for a family of four is more money than the cost to drive and there are very few trains. If we missed the few Sunday trains headed back to the city we’d be stuck. If we didn’t have kids it would be fun to take the train one way and bike back to the Cities, but that’s not transit development – that’s novelty.

    I’ve asked my stepdad about taking the train. First, he doesn’t bike and the nearest station is three miles. He’s not going to walk. If he’s already in the car he doesn’t see the point in stopping and parking. The cost is a major factor. It is just cheaper to drive unless he is going somewhere with expensive parking, like downtown. He doesn’t really ever go downtown. He mainly only goes to other suburbs where the parking is free. Not because he covets free parking, but that is just where he goes. It doesn’t run often enough to make using it to getting into “town” (Elk River) make sense.

    To be a transit-focused development, I imagine you’d need more regular service rather than a commuter train that often is late. You’d need services and restaurants and places to go which is not what a commuter train does.

  4. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    Thanks for this post!

    I graduated from high school out in the exurbs of DC, living in a subdivision right next to a commuter rail station. Lotta people drove the half mile to the station. Otherwise, they had to drive everywhere else. I’m skeptical of expensive transit investments that replace chunks of single car trips at peak times and don’t really allow for much else.

  5. Stephen W. Houghton

    Has no one here heard of revealed preferences? People LIKE living in suburbs. They like car culture. Another word for isolation is privacy. The preferences of new urbanists are laws of nature.

  6. Tristan Phillips

    Oh my God! The Horror! Someone wants to drive! And live in a house and not a high-rise hive! My God the Apocalypse is upon us!

    What is it with totalitarians and collectivists that demand everyone else must live in their little worlds? Why do they demand that everyone live like they want us to (But not like they actually do)?

    Mr. Rowland, like many of his peers, suffers from “my way is right and virtuous and everyone else is evil” mindset. If you don’t agree with his/their view of the world then you are a bad person, and should fail on that basis alone. Choice has no place in his world, and anyone who disagrees needs to be vilified for their wrong-think. It’s a sad state to live in, and to be blinded that not everyone thinks the way you do, or agrees with your thoughts, or even believes in the same things.

    But Mr Rowland, for all the glories of your world view, you never touch on any of the negatives:
    – For example the cost of your vision, not only to implement it but to maintain it. And Minnesota has such a “great” reputation for infrastructure maintenance.
    – No mention of the overcrowding (And the consequences of such like crime and poverty) that would be required to create your view of utopia.
    – The expansion of the State to ensure your grand vision can be implemented. Do you think the current land owners will just hand you their property? Do you think police, and other workers will appear out of thin air and work for free to create your brave new world?

    We could look at places where these ideas have been implemented (Russia, China, etc) to see how well they work. And yet….Mr Rowland doesn’t. Why is that?

    I doubt Mr Rowland, or his right thinking peers at will ever consider and address these questions and examples in their musings on this site. That would require introspection and a mindset that allows contrarian view to be considered on their merits and not dismissed as evil/wrong think.

    Too bad. It would be nice to see someone actually take the subject seriously for once.

      1. D S Craft

        “Your way costs more.”

        So? So what’s it to you? It’s a cost I’m willing to bear in order to live the way I want to live. I’m paying for it, not you, so what do you care? If you want to live in a hive, go for it. I don’t, and unlike you and this author, I’m ok with letting other people live their lives as they see fit. You collectivists are a disturbed lot.

        1. Peter Bajurny

          Your way costs more to society.

          However in many cases the cost directly to the person living there may or may not be lower. And this is where criticisms of the suburbs, and more often defense of the suburbs fall apart.

          I think the suburbs are economically draining and end up being subsidized more than other ways of living. I’m not going to bother to prove it here because whether it’s true or not isn’t really my point here. My point is that my criticism of the suburbs is a criticism of the policies and politics that make the suburbs a rational choice for the people that are there. Though there are many critiques of the suburbs that seem to focus on the people that have made that rational choice. And even more, defense of the suburbs seem to focus on the people that have made the rational choice to live there, but ignore the policies and politics that have ended up making the suburbs a rational choice for people to live.

          I think policies should do their best to make sure people pay the full prices of the choices they make. I don’t think people live in the suburbs because they are irrational beings who haven’t seen the light of New Urbanism, I think it’s because every individual has a complicated internal rubric for evaluating a lot of inputs, like costs and desires, and that rubric has landed them in the suburbs. They’ve made a rational choice for themselves, I can’t fault them for that.

          Now what if gas cost $5 a gallon, or the mortgage interest tax deduction were ended? That would certainly change the calculation, making a large expensive house in the far out suburbs or exurbs much more expensive. And while I’d bet that someone that goes so far as to comment on a website and talk about city living as communist totalitarianism would probably still choose to live in the suburbs at any price, I suspect that many would not, and would make a different choice.

          1. Monte Castleman

            And while we’re at it, let’s end tax credits for dependents, so as a childless, single person I’m not subsidizing people that make the choice to have kids. After all with fewer people having kids there wouldn’t be the need to build houses way out in the suburbs.

            1. Peter Bajurny

              I can imagine a rational policy need to encourage having and raising children. I can’t imagine a rational policy need to encourage large lot suburban living, beyond the people that live there like it.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          No, it’s not that it costs you more. If you were the only one paying for it, then it would be fine.

          But it costs us all more. It’s costs us in the taxes we have to pay for all the extra roads, sewer lines and water mains. And, of course, it costs in the added pollution that comes from extra driving and heating/cooling less efficient buildings.

          I’m 100% in favor of everyone living where they want to if they are paying their own way. But you aren’t.

          1. Squid

            Water and sewer systems, if managed competently, depend on connection fees to pay the cost of pipes and treatment capacity. So, the people buying the homes that connect to water and sewer systems should already be bearing those costs. If not, then those residents are sharing the increased costs with existing ratepayers, as they all pay higher rates together.

            Road maintenance and expansion should be picked up by gas taxes, and I’d probably agree with you that these taxes should be indexed so that they pay for the roads they’re meant to. We’d probably differ when it comes to diverting those revenues into trains and bike trails and other uses that have no connection to gas taxes, but that’s probably a discussion for another time.

            That leaves us with the air pollution from climate control and commuting. On the first point, we should note that new buildings are generally pretty good when it comes to insulation; far better than the 90-year-old houses you’ll see in the Cities. And if we just built a couple of nuke plants, we could heat and cool all of our buildings with zero carbon emissions at all. But most people think uranium is really scary, and would rather support the heat death of the planet.

            So I suppose we still have the commuting issue. Tell you what — let’s slap another nickel on the gas tax and call it some sort of remediation. There — now everybody is paying their own way, and they can live where and how they like, and you have to find some other justification for telling the world that they’re living wrong.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              “If” and “should” in your first two points, I’m sure you will agree, are not the same as do.

              All else equal, new buildings will use less energy, but all else is usually not equal either (e.g., new houses are bigger). I think it’s still hard for a new house to compete with multifamily on energy though.

              I’m open to nuclear, but I think solar is going is going to be a less controversial solution in pretty short order (or I’ve been reading too much solar hype).

              I don’t think a nickle really gets us there, but that’s a start.

            2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              The original comment in this thread accuses the author and other writers about not thinking critically or outside their mindset. I guess I encourage folks to browse through our categories on posts, which range from technocratic/engineering detail to policy to softer pieces on poverty and opportunity and other social issues, and how land use and transportation play into those.

              Re: your point on sewer access charges. I did write a piece showing that our flat-rate SAC model favors larger-lot suburban greenfield over infill development that takes advantage of existing pipes (and reduces cost per household when pipes need replacing): That our Met Council annual budget is 43% debt service to pay for all the sewer system expansion over the last 20-30 years should say a lot. And, since the SAC only makes up 15% of annual revenue, wastewater charges (per gallon of water treated) per household cover much of that debt service.

              And while it’s true that newer homes are more energy efficient, their larger size also means they end up consuming more energy than homes from the 60s-90s, with energy retrofits and the ability to subdivide housing structures in cities (thanks to urban design) allowing old homes to be far more efficient per household.

              To your point on the gas tax for carbon offsets. A gallon of gas releases 19.64 pounds of CO2, or .0088 metric tons. At $35/ton, a reasonable social cost of carbon estimate, this would be 31 cents a gallon. That doesn’t include lifecycle (upstream CO2 from production/refining/transporting gasoline) emissions, nor does it include the social costs of other pollutants emitted when driving. MIT estimated 55,000 premature deaths a year are caused by these emissions. It also doesn’t include costs society bears from traffic crashes, etc. So, a nickel hardly covers any of this.

              The question of whether charging users more than their societal costs to fund other things is the right policy is obviously a good one. It’s good to point out that most bike trails and lanes aren’t funded by any driver fees. But! *Should* we view driving as the luxury transportation mode provided by the public sector (via roads), and revenues from that source go toward funding all modes of transportation? Or a method of charging users exactly what they use? Germany, for example, has extremely steep gas taxes that aren’t even put into a dedicated transportation fund, let along a road fund. They use that money for all sorts of social programs. People still choose to drive (quite a bit!) just less than here.

              In any case, this whole discussion of who pays for what when talking cities vs suburbs vs exurbs is inherently **very complicated**. More complicated than any single or series of blog posts can cover. And very few people are trying to tell the world they’re wrong, but that we have a very complicated, interconnected set of land use and transportation policies that all lead to some less-than-ideal outcomes, and maybe we should do something about it. Feel free to disagree! But most urban people out there aren’t attacking suburbanites out of some hive-mind echo chamber hating viewpoint.

  7. Tattycoram

    I’m from Massachusetts, not Minnesota and I’m stunned that no one’s mentioned weather as a factor. A re-established train line to Boston has stations about 8 miles from each other. Many people still drive (a round trip) or have their spouses drop them off and pick them up (2 round trips) because who wants to be walking or riding a bike 1) in the winter when it’s cold (uncomfortable) and icy and dark (dangerous)? or 2) in the summer when it’s muggy and you’ll be disgustingly sweaty in your suit. And having the car at the station means you can run errands, pick up kids, etc. etc. on your way home. That’s just on top of the fact that many people just like having a little room around them where they live.

    1. Monte Castleman

      It still surprised me the number of people that think that just because they bicycle when it’s zero degrees or a hundred degrees outside, there’s no reason everyone else shouldn’t want to also.

        1. rocinante

          At this point, I have to say that it delights me to no end that Adam Miller thinks (whether it’s true or not) that he is unjustly made to pay for someone else’s choice to live in a suburb.

          Anyone so utterly convinced of their own righteousness should have to suffer through seeing large swathes of the population ignore his policy preferences.

        2. Peter Bajurny

          Since you’re all unable to detect dripping sarcasm, Adam is pointing out the irony of the apparent dichotomy between forcing everybody to bike and forcing people to not bike.

          Of course in Monte’s world the only way someone would bike ever is if they were forced to. But it is interesting that Monte has framed it in this all or nothing way. Enabling biking doesn’t force you to bike, but generally speaking, the way we build for cars forces you to drive. I find that a very funny view of freedom, personally.

  8. Gordon

    Oh, those evil suburbanists and their Yukons!

    Much better to live cheek and jowl in the city, where they can celebrate the glorious mosaic of people in one car shooting at the other car (in front of my house, about two weeks ago)! If they did, they could take advantage of several community gardens within biking distance. North Memorial is also bikeable, assuming one isn’t too exsanguinated from a stray bullet to pedal.

    Sadly, those folks in Huckleberry Hideaway will just have to garden on their own lots, like normal people, because they have the grass and dirt and sunlight, unlike city folk who often do not have tillable acreage. The lack of pickle wrappers, Newport packets and fast food bags will disappoint many gardeners accustomed to urban horticulture.

    One other factor should be considered: there just might be some folks living in the Hideaway who don’t actually have a way-cool well-paying job at a trendy nonprofit in Minneapolis. They might, Gaia help them, be working at the machine shop in Big Lake, and thus have no need of billion-subsidy-dollar trains.

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