New Met Council may raise hackles

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 4:13 PM

Squabbles with the old Republican council may seem tame if Democrats push harder on sprawl and the environment.

After years of skirmishes with a Metropolitan Council led by Republicans, Scott County may soon discover that a council led by Democrats makes those times feel like the good ol' days.

In a single meeting of an influential Met Council committee late last month:

A new council member from neighboring Bloomington asked what is leading the folks from Scott to imagine they could ever put a highway straight through environmentally sensitive wetlands, and

The council's staff outlined plans to direct a multi-million-dollar fund of development subsidies only to cities with major transitways such as light-rail lines, thus excluding Scott and Carver counties.

The latter drew this retort from Wendy Wulff of Lakeville, a holdover from the old Republican council:

"Rather than put this on a fast track and get it through quickly, we need to talk to the other side of this: people who are paying in [to the fund] but are not eligible to receive it."

As much as Scott County bridled at the direction being taken by the seven-county regional planning agency under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, "we could end up being even less thrilled with this one," board chairman Tom Wolf said in an interview late last week.

Scott County's planning manager, Brad Davis, was summoned to the front of the room at the meeting of the council's Community Development Committee to answer for why the county has a dotted line -- a possible alignment for a major north-south roadway -- running through the environmentally sensitive Savage Fen.

"I'm familiar with that hanging out there for over a decade," said Steve Elkins, a new council member from Bloomington but a longtime member of the City Council in that community. "Is it ever going to get resolved? What is the point of a line on the map if you're never going there?"

His comment came after a Met Council staffer mentioned that Scott still asserts the option despite concerns about harm to the fen, a rare, specialized and sensitive type of wetland.

Davis, brought to the front of the room from the audience, was diplomatic. "It remains a concept," he said, "though we do acknowledge there is the Savage Fen."

Will it ever be a feasible path? he was asked.

"It's hard to say," Davis said. "I think there needs to be a lot more study done on the impact on the fen of bridging it over."

Among themselves, Scott officials are more aggressive and exasperated. Echoing the words of senior managers in the county, Wolf said last week: "Years ago people thought there were only two of these things [fens] in the whole world. But they keep multiplying and now there must be 48 of them in the Twin Cities area alone! And there's the problem of, 'Where do you put the road then?'"

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regards fens as a "rare" wetland type that is "crucial" to protect, considering that "up to 10,000 years are required to form a fen naturally." State officials agree that new fens have been identified around the state, but say they are modest in size -- less than 2,000 acres statewide -- and that the Savage Fen is an important asset.

The issue of development subsidies is even trickier. Unlike Carver, Scott hasn't gotten that many of them to start with. And to the extent the council wants them used to fuel new high-density housing for the "low-income and disadvantaged," in the words of a top council staffer, many in Scott would be ambivalent.

"Just drive around," Wolf said. "You'll find affordable housing anywhere! What's wrong with buying a fixer-upper and working on it and building equity? There are houses in New Prague selling for $70,000. They need work, but hey ..."

The subsidies also are aimed at locating jobs near transit stations, and that might draw more concern from a county that's eager to increase its stock of jobs.

Eligible cities include those where rapid busways are planned for the near future, including Dakota County suburbs such as Apple Valley.

Partly because it feels like an end-around to avoid previous restrictions on how much loot ends up in the hands of central cities, "I have severe concerns about this," Lakeville's Wulff told Met Council colleagues. "I don't think it's the right direction to go."

But new Met Council member Jennifer Munt of Minnetonka defended the idea.

"My hope is we can sell this not as a way of picking winners and losers but helping the region win," she said.

"I hope we think regionally, not parochially. In my district some have [transit stops] and some don't, but I think I can sell it as a regional win."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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