Two Washington County communities renowned for springing into a defiant crouch when confronted with growth are facing the prospect of major new development.
And each has moved into a period of intense debate over how to react to threats of suburban sprawl.
On property shouldering up to Afton, the owner of hundreds of acres of still-bare land in a bustling Woodbury is proposing what he’s calling a “nuclear blast” of urban development — “something big and bodacious.”
Across Interstate 94, Lake Elmo, even more celebrated for its stubborn quest to remain an island of quaint rural calm, is experiencing what a county planner calls “astonishing” growth.
“When people see all this development going up, they’re going to go, ‘Holy crap!’ ” said Council Member Anne Smith.
On top of that, a proposed $500 million rapid busway is to slice across one edge of Lake Elmo — precisely because its untouched land lends itself to the sort of concentrated development that helps justify high-frequency transit.
A newly installed City Council majority in Lake Elmo is seeking to hose down development fervor that has already taken root. For Afton, the issue is whether to erect a firewall to keep it out altogether.
The two cities share the ambition, though, of being that place on the map where suburban sprawl stops, and unlit nights begin.
The ‘Gold Line’
The proposed Gateway Corridor busway could raise the tempo for both cities.
The line, from St. Paul’s Union Depot almost to Afton’s border, has strong support from civic leaders.
During a recent bus tour staged for the new chair of the Metropolitan Council, Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik warned of “almost crippling congestion” on an already constipated I-94 unless large numbers of commuters can be shifted to frontage-road buses running along on their own guideway.
The potential exists — and with many major transitway proposals now moving forward across the Twin Cities, this applies to the entire metro — for highly concentrated station-area development to help arrest sprawl, and protect more farmland and open space.
But it doesn’t seem likely to feel that way when the developments are first proposed.
The “nuclear blast” envisioned for land alongside Afton would come thanks to Alan Dale, owner of Minnesota Tile & Stone.
He holds 350 untouched acres in Woodbury in an area destined to be the busway’s terminus. He envisions a dense mixture of homes and commerce, parks and pathways, similar to but leafier than St. Louis Park’s West End.
As Woodbury has moved nearer to Afton, Afton has grown nervous enough to talk to Woodbury about what’s going on. Afton administrator Ron Morse expresses the hope that it’s “not going to be a dramatic transition” from one city to the next.
Dale hopes to ease that transition by installing a large lake with parkland and trails closest to Afton. But he also doubts that Afton can stay the same.
“I think the only thing I know about Afton is that it’s not open to growth,” he said. “So when the busway comes in, I think they’ll have to rethink that position — if not immediately, maybe five or 10 years hence.”
Prompted in part by pre-busway fears of involuntary annexation, Afton is about halfway through a planning process designed to sort out the options for creating a zone that would prevent Woodbury-style development from encroaching.
A sudden jolt
If Afton is bracing for future moves, Lake Elmo is reacting to change already taking place.
Voters in November ousted a pair of incumbents from a City Council that presided over a sudden jolt into growth hyperdrive. The council approved well over 1,000 new housing units in a city that had bumped along for years at about 25 per annum.
That swift revolt was mostly to standard suburbia. But what happens if something closer to a “nuclear blast” is proposed? Dale himself owns a much smaller parcel — 70 acres — in one key spot there.
With Lake Elmo shaping up as a key point of potential conflict for an important transitway, new Met Council Chair Adam Duininck has already launched a charm offensive, inviting the council to lunch earlier this month at the upscale Lake Elmo Inn.
So far, “it is just chatter,” said Lake Elmo administrator Dean Zuleger. Harry Melander, the Met Council member representing Lake Elmo and environs, said: “This is still very, very early. All these plans are preliminary.”
But Zuleger is preparing his council for a case that could be made: that to cede territory for density could allow for the trade-off of preserving farmland and other open space elsewhere. Dale notes that demographics are shifting toward more concentrated settings, both for retiring boomers and millennials.
In Woodbury, meanwhile, where conventional suburban growth is starting to flag, officials say they resent the implication that they are perpetrating “sprawl.” Woodbury’s compact lots and multifamily developments squeeze a lot more people into a lot less space than its neighbors.
“If everyone has to have a full acre,” said planner Eric Searles, “this metro is going to stretch past Menomonie,” 45 minutes into Wisconsin.
Adds his boss, Dwight Picha: “Afton, Lake Elmo, it’s your city. Do what you think you should be doing.”
Neither Afton nor Lake Elmo is sanguine, though, and neither speaks with a single voice. Both feel at times the Met Council as an ominous, powerful force. Veteran development consultant John Shardlow offered reassurance when some in an Afton crowd last fall claimed that no city will ever be allowed to be an island of rural amid the ’burbs.
“As long as the city of Afton isn’t calling for regional infrastructure,” he said, meaning things like water and sewer pipe, “the Met Council isn’t going to be making you take it.”
Afton’s next step is convening a meeting this spring of landowners living near the Woodbury border. Lake Elmo, said Smith, will take months to sort through its options.
Smith said she was impressed by the new Met Council chair at lunch and doesn’t like all the talk of a coming clash.
“You’re trying to make something boring and mundane sound dramatic,” she said. “It’s not a ‘clash,’ it’s a negotiation.”