There was a time in the late 1970s when Lake Elmo briefly entertained what some viewed as the audacious idea of opening itself up to suburban-style development.
Much like its neighbor to the south, Woodbury, it appeared poised for major growth, with plenty of developable land and proximity to major highways and jobs.
Instead, Lake Elmo decided to go in another direction, working relentlessly to buffer itself from encroaching suburban sprawl.
Nearly 40 years later, as it faces renewed pressure from the Metropolitan Council, the city is trying to change its image as a bastion of anti-development sentiment.
“I think we have a council that’s much more free market based. Five business people on the council,” said Dean Zuleger, the city’s administrator. “This council is much more collaborative with our external partners than confrontational.”
Zuleger said the city must strike a delicate balance between meeting the Met Council’s future growth requirements — which have been a point of dispute between the two entities — and preserving its rural identity.
The paths taken by Lake Elmo and Woodbury reflect divergent priorities about the pace and shape of development.
Woodbury has “had a steady philosophy on growth,” dating back to its founding families, the Bielenbergs, Jensens, McHarries and Wolrestorffs, said Dwight Picha, a 37-year veteran of city politics.
“The city developed its first comprehensive plan in the late ’70s and kind of laid out a 30- to 40-year time period on how the city was envisioned to develop,” said Picha, the city’s community development director. “From what I’ve heard from people, leaders could see that Woodbury was starting to change and there needed to be more government influence on what was occurring.”
Lake Elmo, once a popular resort area, was settled by farmers, lured by the rolling open space and political autonomy.
It was that desire to escape urban bustle that persuaded Marjorie Williams and her husband to move to Lake Elmo in 1972.
“There were those who felt Lake Elmo was ‘behind the times’ and needed to grow, but there were also many people who had lived other places as we had who valued the open space, the farms, and the slow charm of the city,” Williams, who later served on the town’s planning commission.
“It was those mostly ‘newcomers’ back in the 1970s and 1980s who fought to keep the grow as organic — that is, not from outside push, but a natural, slow growth. We met many who had been in Lake Elmo for at least one generation or two, who also believed as we did that ‘small town’ and ‘slow growth’ were not dirty words.”
She continued: “The people elected to council were all pro rural and won on the promise of slow growth. Over time, people who wanted Lake Elmo to grow learned to say they were ‘pro-rural’ to get elected, but that was not their agenda.”
Many people moved there “not wanting to have to pay the high infrastructure costs that sewer entails and having to deal with the traffic,” said Steve DeLapp, a longtime political fixture who in the past has lobbied against development projects.
“It means you have to have small lots and no privacy. And it means that you have to have very, very bad environmental conditions,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We like having low taxes and we like to have firm control of the government so it won’t change.”
Some residents are concerned about the city’s current direction, accusing officials of cozying up to the Met Council.
“Very few residents in Lake Elmo consider their land to be an investment. They consider it to be their home,” DeLapp said.
One example of that contentiousness culminated in a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling that the Met Council had “authority to require modifications to comprehensive plans that depart from or have an impact on its system plans in a substantial manner,” according to court documents.
The city argued unsuccessfully that the Met Council had overstepped its bounds by ordering it to install sewer and water lines in the Old Village and along its southern border with Woodbury to accommodate projected population growth. As a result of the ruling, the council had more of a say about the city’s direction.
Now that they are working more closely with the Met Council, city officials hope the council will ease up and revise its population projections.
Mayor Mike Pearson said that talks with the council have “been going very well.”
“I think the Met Council has their perspectives and I think we shared ours, and I think we’re going to work out terms that are beneficial to both parties,” he said.
Moving forward, the city’s greatest challenge is preserving its small-town character while encouraging steady growth, Pearson said.
“Our model of open spaces and large lots, while very appealing, had its challenges, as it relates to city infrastructure and city services; for example, to sewer services and road maintenance,” he said.
“The zoning that was in place inhibited growth, and so we came up with different zoning where we allowed for commercial, we allowed for some industrial, we allowed for certainly residential, with sewer lines.”
City officials have also talked about redeveloping the Old Village, a project that entails the construction of 900 housings units and realignment of Hwy. 5 to prevent the area from being overrun by “cut-through” traffic when the new four-lane St. Croix River bridge opens in 2016. The bridge, at Oak Park Heights, is expected to draw more traffic.