A farm community since the 1850s, Corcoran is the last town in Hennepin County to add sewer and water lines. Will development follow?
The city of Corcoran is 20 miles from downtown Minneapolis, but it might as well be 200.
The downtown is little more than a road crossing with a traffic light, liquor store, bank, gas station and convenience market. The town's 36 square miles has no apartments, supermarkets, public schools or big-box stores.
"It's frustrating to see all the commercial development that's gone around us and has skipped over us," said Dorothy Theis, a former City Council member.
But all that's about to change.
The city is putting the finishing touches on its first 1.2 miles of sewer and water lines, becoming the last town in Hennepin County to add them.
Some developers and landowners are hoping the improvements will attract business and boost land values, but not everyone is pleased with Corcoran's coming-of-age.
Bill Halverstadt, who bought a 120-acre farm in the city in 1968, favors keeping the area as rural as possible and doesn't think development means progress.
"Many of us feel we're living in the middle of a park, so why would we want to pollute it," he said.
The $2.1 million sewer line won't become operational until a pumping station is built next year, but it represents the first ripple of urban development in what's been a farm community since the 1850s.
The contrast between metro development and historic farmland is clearly visible along County Road 101, the border between Corcoran and its eastern neighbor Maple Grove.
With about 60,000 residents, most of Maple Grove has filled in, and its side of the road is lined with apartment buildings and single-home developments. Corcoran's side sports an occasional older home, with expansive western views of wetlands and freshly tilled cornfields.
Unlike Maple Grove and Plymouth to its southeast, the absence of sewer and water has kept development at bay. Multi-unit housing and retail need pressurized water for fire suppression sprinkler systems and sewer pipes for wastewater disposal.
Corcoran's children fan out to attend five different school districts, and its homes are protected by four neighboring city fire departments, which must bring their own water to fight fires.
"Nobody thinks about sewer and water as a big deal," said city administrator Dan Donahue. "It is, because it affects everything that happens in the lifeblood of a city, and nothing happens without it."
'Stagnant for a long time'
Clarence Schommer, whose family owns 28 acres bordering the new sewer line, has lived in nearby Plymouth for 40 years. He has watched the outer edge of the metro area creep west from Robbinsdale and Hwy. 100 to Hwy. 169, and then to Interstate 494 and beyond.
"Corcoran hasn't changed all that much," he said. "It's kind of stayed stagnant for a long time."
Schommer stands to benefit from the first segment of sewer line, and hopes to sell the acreage that was once part of his father's dairy farm.
No buyers have been interested during the recession, he said, but that may change whenever the economy improves and developers kick into gear.
Some residents would be content keeping things as they are.
"A lot of the people who've come out here want to be the last one that moves in here and they don't want any development," said Theis, also an alternate Planning Commission member who's lived in the city for 34 years. "But the same people all want parks and paved roads."
Corcoran had a minor growth spurt during her city council years in the early 1980s, Theis said, when a number of elderly farmers sold off property, mostly in 10-acre chunks for hobby farms.
Since 1990, the population has grown only slightly, according to census data.
Theis attributes part of that lack of growth to the Metropolitan Council, which did not approve extending metro sewage lines into the eastern third of Corcoran until 2008.
Goal: Keeping residents
The tension between rural life and the amenities of city living is abundantly clear to Dan Guenthner, re-elected last week to his seventh two-year term as Corcoran's mayor.
"There was this notion that you could move out to these rural areas and create neighborhoods and nothing ever changes," he said. "That's not quite realistic."
The city has more than 1,400 individual septic systems and wells, he said, but most of the terrain has poor drainage and many wetlands. "Every lot having its own septic system doesn't make sense environmentally, economically or functionally," he said.
Corcoran also has more gravel roads than paved local roads, he said, and that system is both inadequate and expensive to maintain.
And with much of the city's relatively sparse population on sporadic large-acre lots, he said, there are few affordable starter homes to attract younger people and no senior housing. "We've got to have more housing choices for our residents if they want to stay here, and right now without sewer and water you can't have it," Guenthner said.
The first mile of sewer and water lines won't change things immediately, he said, and no one expects any explosive growth in a sputtering economy.
But Corcoran is shovel-ready for change, said Donahue, and the clock is ticking.
"Developers are hovering, but nobody's pulling any triggers yet," he said.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388