Feb. 23: Met Council’s density requirements raise hackles in west metro

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2014 - 12:48 AM

The contrasting fates of two neighboring former golf courses have angered and frustrated residents and raised the prickly issue of how dense housing should be along the fringes of the west metro, where growth is once again kicking into gear.

New homes will be constructed on the two pieces of land, which have been sold by the same owner to the same developer. But metro planners require one to have at least six times more houses per acre.

The reason is an invisible line drawn by planners that defines what land in the seven-county metro area is within the regional sewage treatment system, owned and run by the Metropolitan Council.

Cities may not approve residential developments within the line unless they meet the council’s density requirement of at least three homes per acre.

That’s the case at the former Red Oak Golf Course in Minnetrista, whose City Council earlier this month approved the preliminary plat by developer Source Land Capital to build 61 homes on about 20 acres.

Outside the line, such as at the former Lakeview Golf Course just down the road in Orono, planned density will be 55 homes on 143 acres, averaging one home per two acres. Nearby residents opposed that as well, arguing that the city needs more open space.

It’s not the first time metro cities and the Met Council have clashed. In the 1990s, when growth was explosive, Lake Elmo defied the council in a dispute that lasted for years.

Neighbors outraged

In Minnetrista, the higher density requirements have dumbfounded those living on large lots near Red Oak.

“Why is the Met Council telling Minnetrista what to do out here? This city is horse farms and 10-acre lots, and yet they’re forcing high-density housing here,” said Red Oak neighbor David McElroy.

“Cramming all these houses together is essentially horrific and unlike anything that we’ve seen in Minnetrista,” said Val Jones, another neighbor. “We understand business and economics and the need for growth, but this does not make a shred of sense.”

The reason for the required density is economics, said Guy Peterson, the Met Council’s community development director.

The council is charged with overseeing development in the metro, including the vast regional wastewater treatment system that costs taxpayers millions of dollars, Peterson said. “Therefore, when we put sewer pipes in the ground and build wastewater treatment plants, we need to have a certain amount of density of the development that’s using that infrastructure,” he said.

In the metro area, he said, that’s three to five homes per acre in single-family housing developments.

The boundary, called the Metropolitan Urban Service Area (MUSA) line, is adjusted about once every decade around the growth perimeter of the seven-county area. Decisions about whether and how much to expand the line are based on population growth forecasts for each city, and the cities’ suggestions about which areas are most appropriate for development. MUSA line changes become part of local comprehensive plans that each city prepares that must be approved by the Met Council.

Lisa Barajas, manager of local planning assistance for the Met Council, said cities have flexibility to plan inside the line for pockets of higher or lower density to meet neighborhood needs. “They may have some areas that are six or seven units an acre, and others that are half-acre lots,” she said. “It’s certainly within their capability to do that so long as they come in at [an average of] three units an acre.”

But officials in Minnetrista say it doesn’t work that way.

City Council Member Anne Hunt said the Met Council forced the city to approve 1,071 units on 490 acres in the Woodland Cove development, and originally wanted the Red Oak golf course to have nearly five homes per acre. “It’s a myth that local cities really have that much control over the density issues,” Hunt said.

Minnetrista City Administrator Mike Funk said cities and developers need permits to hook up to the sewer system, and that the Met Council can dictate what is acceptable density for each project.

Mayor Cheryl Fischer said Minnetrista had to beg the Met Council to lower the density at Red Oak from five to three homes per acre.

Fischer said Minnetrista once had a history of not following the Met Council’s density requirements, but that came to an end about a decade ago. The Met Council has since required the city to “make up” and “backfill” for previous developments that weren’t dense enough, she said.

Lake Elmo also struggled

Lake Elmo, east of St. Paul, also wanted to retain its rural character and defied the Met Council in the 1990s. Matters came to a head in 2002 when the council rejected the city’s comprehensive plan and said Lake Elmo needed to accept its fair share of development to prevent leapfrog sprawl into outlying areas. In 2004, the state Supreme Court upheld the Met Council’s authority to impose regional planning on cities if necessary.

Homeowners near Red Oak know about that history, and know that the development near their homes will happen. But they are disappointed that Minnetrista took $180,000 in lieu of having the developer contribute 2.3 acres that could have been added to a small park adjacent to the golf course. The city also will receive $218,000 because there isn’t room to replace about 5,200 of the nearly 9,800 trees that will be cut down as houses go up.

Ralph Harrison, who lives across from the park, said the city is as much at fault as the Met Council.

“We have inappropriate density forced on us by the Met Council in the first place,” said Harrison. “But now the city has gone over and above that, and they’re using the Met Council as an excuse.”

Jodie Youngquist, another neighbor, calculated that because some of the homes will be near wetlands and need to be on larger lots, 51 of the 61 homes will be so close together that their density will be nearly five homes per acre, with some houses only 15 feet apart.

Fischer said some landowners elsewhere in the city favor residential and commercial growth and expansion, and want the sewer boundary extended to include their property, which would make it more valuable for sale or subdivision.

But the mayor acknowledged that Red Oak’s trans­formation does not fit the neighborhood’s character.

“It’s going to look very different from a lot of places around here,” Fischer said. “But that’s the olden days, and the new days are different.”

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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