Lake Elmo loses land detachment case

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 12:34 PM

The city’s attitude to development is changing just as Appeals Court lets township control 4 parcels.

The court-ordered ceding of a 57-acre parcel of Lake Elmo land to Stillwater Township after a development dispute that began in late 2010 might represent a case of bad timing, at least from Lake Elmo’s perspective.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals earlier this month found that there was no legal reason, despite the city’s arguments to the contrary, to deny the request to shift the four parcels of land involving three owners from the city to the township.

The ruling frees the land, near the busy junction of Hwy. 36 and Manning Avenue and near the intersection of Hwy. 5, from Lake Elmo’s zoning regulations.

The land was zoned as agricultural. When the owners sought to have it rezoned, making it more attractive to developers, they were rebuffed — and not diplomatically so, said Bernard Nass, who with his wife owns about half the land in two parcels and has been counting on its sale to support their retirement.

“I gave Lake Elmo a $1,000 application fee to have it rezoned,” he said. “The City Council turned it down after about 15 minutes and kept the fee. I was never treated so rudely in all my life.”

The landowners were told, “ ‘You might own it, but we zone it,’ ” he said.

Lake Elmo has garnered an image for bucking development, for trying to hold out as a rural island amid a sea of suburban subdivisions. Dean Zuleger, the city’s new administrator, said it’s clear the ruling reflects that reputation.

“But that day has changed,” he said.

Zuleger and Mayor Mike Pearson, elected last fall after serving on the City Council for two years, said the landowners now likely would have gotten a different reception as the city — backed by a new administration and decisionmakers — shifts its philosophy to strike a more balanced approach.

As one example, Pearson cited plans for a development of 317 single- and multli-family housing units near Interstate 94 between Keats and Inwood Avenues and near Lake Elmo Park Reserve. Construction likely will start this fall.

“It is too bad,” Pearson said of the ruling. “I can’t speak to the past, I can only speak to the last two years, and now I think the mind-set has changed.”

Thomas Bidon, who owns a smaller piece of the disputed land, served a short stint on the city’s Planning Commission, in part out of frustration over its unbending policy. He also sees a change. “Now they are looking for businesses,” he said.

The city, despite setbacks in District Court, before an administrative law judge and now at the Court of Appeals, is considering its next step. If the matter isn’t dropped, that would leave a state Supreme Court appeal.

“As it stands, the land is now under a different jurisdiction,” Pearson said. “I hope the ship didn’t sail, but it might have.”

Pearson and Zuleger said the city’s case was sound, and the decision was as puzzling as it was disappointing. Pearson said the township’s restrictions on the land are even tighter than the city’s.

But it’s not clear whether Stillwater Township is the land’s final destination.

The tract is not far from Stillwater Area High School, a prime spot for potential development, where Lake Elmo, Oak Park Heights and an odd corner of Stillwater Township that will soon become part of the city of Stillwater also converge.

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