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Just beyond the Targets and the Caribous in Scott and Dakota counties lie the townships -- a throwback world of frontier democracy. So much so, township officials say, that even the folks living there aren't always fully conscious of it.
"Most people don't realize that it's township residents who set our tax levy," said Brent Lawrence, town board chairman in Credit River Township.
Not that they all throng the meetings, mind you. Of Credit River's 1,700 or so households, he concedes, "A good turnout for an annual meeting would be around 60 people."
Still, it's a whole different world in the counties' hinterlands -- a hinterlands that is slowly evaporating in some metro counties where few if any townships still remain, but one that is remains remarkably robust in these two counties south of the river.
"Scott and Dakota counties don't really fully reflect the state, because they do have exurban growth in some townships," said Eric Hedtke of Eagan, an attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships. "But even here, when you're in southeast Dakota, toward Red Wing, in places like Douglas Township, things are still very much like they were in the past."
The release a few days ago by the state auditor of tax and spending numbers for most of the state's 1,785 townships provides a fresh reminder of just how different the suburban-edge townships have become from their more farm-centered cousins further out.
The tax wealth of a place like Credit River, for instance, with its easy access to I-35 and its rolling, wooded topography, towers over most of its neighboring townships and ranks third statewide.
Credit River bristles with estates and mansions, being one of the metro area's leading hotspots for sales of million-dollar-and-up homes, according to the Metropolitan Council.
A number of factors account for the vigorous farming existence of dozens of south metro townships at a time when they are drying up elsewhere. As Hedtke remarked, "Anoka County is down to one, and Hennepin just lost their last one last year, when Hassan Township was annexed by Rogers. Ramsey has one, Washington just a handful, three or four."
Factors include the high quality of south-metro farmland and political decisions to remain more rural. Credit River for instance did contemplate incorporating as a city but decided against it.
One big difference between townships and cities is the expectation of surburban-type services and the taxing and spending that goes with it. Even in outlying small towns in counties like Scott there is pressure for amenities, and the result, the township association figures, is a difference in per-capita spending that is yawning: $1,242 for cities, versus just under $290 a person in townships.
Even between Dakota and Scott, differences emerge. Dakota is a tremendous powerhouse in agriculture, for instance, with 150,000 acres still farmed compared with 96,000 in Scott, according to Met Council land use estimates. Dakota townships hold five of the top six spots for farm acreage metrowide.
Conversely, Dakota townships rank way below Scott's for lakes acreage, perhaps in part because farmers drained lakes years ago.
Overall, the state auditor reported, 924,158 people live in Minnesota townships -- ranging from nearly unpeopled forests in the north to nearly 11,000 people in the Ramsey County township of White Bear. The least populous is a township in Clearwater County, with just five souls, but 51 percent of townships have 300 or fewer people.
Here's what we found in consulting multiple sources:
Scott County has three of the 20 most populous townships among the roughly 1,700 across the state.
The peopling of a county's rural areas, as opposed to remaining mostly farmland, results from a number of factors, including freeway access, topography and past political decisions about large-lot exurban growth.
Statewide rank Township Population
5 Credit River 5,162
15 Spring Lake 3,633
18 New Market 3,435
29 Cedar Lake 2,793
37 Empire 2,459
The most solid numbers here come from the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, but officials note that exurban growth rates in general are far lower today. Even during that decade, however, some townships in Scott and Dakota, much less outstate townships, did lose population.
Metrowide rank* Township Growth, 00-10 Pct. growth
6 Credit River 1,201 31%
8 Empire 806 49%
12 Cedar Lake 582 26%
18 New Market 383 13%
21 Helena 208 14%
29 Sciota 129 45%
31 Randolph 123 23%
32 Greenvale 119 17%
35 Jackson 103 8%
39 Nininger 85 10%
*11-county metro, about 95 townships
Not surprisingly, tax wealth follows from population, though Credit River has far more million-dollar home sales, for instance, than most. "Tax capacity" is a measure that includes not just the value of property but its ability to spin off taxes: homes, farms and stores are taxed at differing rates.
Statewide rank Township Tax capacity
3 Credit River $9,199,211
11 Spring Lake $5,774,136
14 New Market $5,260,724
23 Cedar Lake $4,784,276
62 Empire $3,042,842
Hundreds of townships around the state have higher per capita taxes than any of those in Scott or Dakota. Experts caution, though, that in some rural areas, population isn't an ideal measure: few may live on the land, but lots of it is owned by outside entities such as lumber companies.
Statewide rank Township/County per person
351 St. Lawrence $365.07
435 Empire $331.94
520 Eureka $307.68
594 Credit River $285.22
596 Hampton $284.99
These numbers suggest that a township like Louisville, south of Shakopee, is drawing folks who work in job centers such as Chanhassen and Eden Prairie. This data set dates mainly from before the arrival of MnPass lanes, and it will be interesting to see whether commute times drop along I-35 for enough affluent folks to change these rankings.
Dakota/Scott rank Avg. in minutes Townshop
1 21.7 Nininger (Dakota)
2 22 Louisville (Scott)
3 22.8 Vermillion (Dakota)
4 22.8 Castle Rock (Dakota)
5 23 Sciota (Dakota)
20 29.4 Randolph (Dakota)
21 29.6 New Market (Scott)
22 30.9 Helena (Scott)
23 30.9 Cedar Lake (Scott)
24 31.8 Empire (Dakota)
One notable change over the past 10 to 15 years has been the growing gap in household incomes between the townships, as the exurban land rush brought members of the One Percent to places like Credit River township, fairly close in along I-35W, much more than to other places.
Percent over $200,000,
Dakota/Scott rank Township income&benefits
1 Credit River 18.1%
2 Cedar Lake 11.4%
3 New Market 11.1%
4 Louisville 8.5%
5 Eureka 7.2%
There are some surprises here until you consider how much land, for instance, along the Minnesota River is held by state, federal and other layers of government. The national wildlife refuge is growing along the river banks.
Metrowide rank** Township Acres**
2 Ravenna 2,933
4 Louisville 2,403
5 Credit River 2,323
7 St. Lawrence 1,704
9 Douglas 1,334
**Parks or reserves
Dakota County dominates in this category, with lots of rich, flat farmland. Other than in Carver County, there isn't really a ton of open farmland left in the metro, at least in townships. Experts do note that some jurisdictions -- in, for instance, Hennepin and Anoka counties that have incorporated as cities -- are still sort of townships in reality.
Metrowide rank*** Township Avg. acres
1 Belle Plaine 19,317
2 Vermillion 18,776
3 Hampton 18,506
4 Castle Rock 18,105
5 Marshan 17,933
***Seven-county metro area
The presence of bodies of water is a clue sometimes to property wealth, with developers drawn to the lake or river views. In Washington County, the St. Croix River draws lots of impressive mansions.
Metrowide rank*** Township Acres of open water
3 Nininger 2,046
5 Cedar Lake 1,568
7 Spring Lake 1,379
9 Helena 902
11 Ravenna 863
***Seven-county metro area