From their sunny kitchen in Nowthen, Kent and Muriel Roessler can spy a line of pine trees standing like sentinels just beyond their barn.
The trees mark the western edge of Oak Grove, a city the Roessler family has long admired and is now fighting to join.
“It’s about what Oak Grove is doing,” Kent Roessler said. “We want in on that.”
But Nowthen isn’t ready to see its boundary shift and the Roesslers’ address change. The same goes for the land stretching to the south. And the farm just down the road.
A growing annexation campaign on Nowthen’s eastern border has left landowners squaring off against City Hall in this city of 4,600. It’s also making office life uneasy for the two neighboring mayors, who work together in their day jobs at a nearby plant.
The mayors say they and their cities have long savored a good relationship, with smaller communities often banding together in this rural slice of northern Anoka County. But the recent annexation effort has stirred up divisive, long-standing debates about land use and property rights.
The unusual request to break from one incorporated city for another has some Nowthen leaders worried that a land rush may be on the horizon should the current push prove successful.
Already at least two other landowners have joined the Roesslers’ push to detach from Nowthen in favor of Oak Grove, population 8,400. About 450 acres are at stake, most of it farmland, open fields and woods.
But it may not always remain that way, and that’s a key concern, said Nowthen Mayor Jeff Pilon.
“The potential tax revenue on that is extremely significant,” Pilon said. “We are not just going to let anybody who wants to change the border do it willy-nilly.”
During the week, Pilon oversees the daily operations of Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin’s manufacturing and engineering business in Ramsey.
The mayors say they have agreed to disagree as their cities wait for a judge to weigh in.
“This is really uncomfortable for me personally,” Korin said. “I try not to bring up anything to do with this issue.”
The Roesslers have long admired the way things get done in neighboring Oak Grove. They like the town’s leadership, Spartan budgets and development planning, and praise the chutzpah of Oak Grove leaders for going toe-to-toe with the Metropolitan Council over growth and land issues.
“They know how to get development done, and they don’t nickel-and-dime you,” said Kent Roessler, who is a well-known land developer in the area.
Roessler said he has no current plans to develop his 320-acre property, where his home sits surrounded by serene farmland. But should that day come, he said, he’d be in a better position in Oak Grove.
“All of the other cities are growing, and Nowthen is not,” Roessler said. “No one will come to this town to develop.”
Roessler approached Oak Grove city officials in March about annexing his property, also letting neighbors know about his plan. A few have joined him.
Doug and Norma Hough, whose land straddles the two communities, decided annexation made sense. Their home sits in Oak Grove, but more than 100 acres of it wraps into Nowthen. They too have no plans to sell but prefer Oak Grove’s less restrictive lot requirements; in general, Nowthen sticks to a 5-acre lot minimum, while Oak Grove favors 2.5-acre lots.
“It’s our property,” Doug Hough said. “We’re not trying to change the world.”
Several landowners have now banded together to submit a petition to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles all municipal boundary adjustments. An administrative law judge will ultimately review their request to detach from Nowthen and become part of Oak Grove in an upcoming hearing.
A fourth Nowthen property owner near the border has indicated interest in pursuing the same action.
‘Where does it stop?’
Hundreds of annexations unfold across Minnesota each year, typically involving border adjustments between townships and cities. Much less common is a contested annexation involving two cities, said Craig Johnson, who deals with land issues for the League of Minnesota Cities.
“We only came up with two other instances in the last 10 years that we could think of,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty rare.”
Some townships become cities to ward off annexation attempts by neighboring communities. Officials in Nowthen, formerly Burns Township, say there were no such threats nipping at their edges when they took on city status in 2008.
But now uncertainty hangs over their eastern border.
“It’s ironic that once we became a city, we have greater pressure than we ever did when we were a township,” said Pilon, who’s been mayor for three years.
Pilon said he worries about the future of other large land parcels hugging the shared boundary with Oak Grove.
“Where does it stop?” he said. “If you don’t like the community you are in, you can sell your property and buy somewhere else.”
And that’s where Pilon’s neighboring mayor — and daytime boss — disagrees. Korin, who has been Oak Grove’s mayor for eight years, said it’s no different from a business wanting to move.
“I am not in that position to say, ‘Landowner, you don’t have the right to do that,’ ” Korin said. “I have fought so long and so hard for property rights.”
By signing a resolution recently supporting the landowners’ petition, Korin said the Oak Grove City Council is respecting the process.
But it’s made office life at Korin’s business tricky.
“We have to come at it as professionally as we can,” Pilon said. “We’ve got to face each other the next day.”