City officials have begun working more closely with the Met Council to shed its development-averse image.
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.”