A city tree inspector’s walk across private property in search of diseased trees is business as usual in some Minnesota cities, but to Ham Lake city leaders, it’s an affront to community values of property rights and small government.
Declaring that he wouldn’t stand for “mandatory, jackbooted, stomp-on-your-property” inspections, Ham Lake Mayor Mike Van Kirk and the City Council unanimously wiped the provision allowing them off the books.
The Anoka County city of 15,000 is at the epicenter of the small-government movement in the Twin Cities’ predominantly conservative northern suburbs, and its current elected leaders are pushing that philosophy even further.
“Every chance I get, I protect the rights of landowners and their rights in general,” Van Kirk said recently. “Government should not be an obstacle.”
Van Kirk and Ham Lake’s City Council are scrutinizing the city’s budget — even police service — line by line, rolling back city regulations whenever they can and rejecting the Metropolitan Council’s calls for higher-density development, more low-income housing and plans for future city water and sewer services.
“We respectfully declined. That is not what Ham Lake is about,” said Council Member Gary Kirkeide, who is also Ham Lake’s former mayor.
City leaders are reluctant to pay for what they consider nonessentials.
“I just want to protect my city,” Van Kirk said. “If you don’t like it, move to Blaine.”
That approach to governing appears to have strong community support. The mayor and all of the council members ran unchallenged in the most recent elections.
But some citizens worry that they’re taking their enthusiasm for small government to the extreme, particularly when it comes to environmental matters. They cite city leaders’ refusal to help pay for treatments to reduce invasive milfoil in the city’s marquee lake even though a city park occupies more than half of its shoreline. And the City Council has said that property rights trump the right of inspectors to examine trees for oak wilt and most recently the emerald ash borer, which was discovered in Ham Lake this spring.
The City Council recently declined to reappoint Ham Lake’s longtime park and tree commission chairman, who had recommended more proactive management to prevent the spread of oak wilt.
“They have a very restricted philosophy — as little as possible should be done,” said Mel Aanerud, the former chairman. “Some people say that this is the way nature wants it to happen and ‘just let it go.’ ”
From its incorporation as a city in 1974, Ham Lake, which sprawls over 36 square miles, has embraced a rural, individualistic way of life, with the city requiring that lots be a minimum of one acre to maintain that country feel.
And keeping costs down is a point of pride. It approved a $4.1 million city levy for 2015 — one of the lowest tax rates in the Twin Cities.
Van Kirk, a charter pilot, heating and air-conditioning contractor and trucking company owner, was first elected mayor in 2010 on the strength of his promises to put his views into practice.
Along with changes to the tree inspection policy, he and the council have eased restrictions on the size of garage and outbuildings residents can build.
Residents can now build 3,000-square-foot garages, up from 2,000 square feet. And if that garage holding your boat, snowmobiles and four-wheelers is bigger than your house, it’s not a problem, Van Kirk said.
The city also is streamlining the building-permit process so more of it can be done online and payments can be made with a credit card. “We did a lot of tweaking to the building department to make it simpler for contractors,” Van Kirk said.
While the city’s tax levy has inched up 2 to 3 percent each year, the mayor and council have been sharply critical of some proposed projects, including bike trails and lanes.
“How many millions of dollars do you want to spend adding a bike lane to existing roads?” Van Kirk said. “We have trails to nowhere all over our city. It’s embarrassing.”
Van Kirk has repeatedly scrutinized the city’s $1 million contract with the Anoka Sheriff’s Department for police service — the city’s largest expense, which has doubled in the last decade.
He asked Sheriff James Stuart for a more detailed bill and asked about cost-cutting measures, including having the city own its own squad cars. The sheriff rejected that plan, but Van Kirk said the conversation about police costs isn’t over.
“I don’t want to pick a fight with the sheriff, but that’s my job, to review every contract with the city,” he said.
‘Pay for yourself’
Perhaps the issue that best underlines the city’s approach to services is that of milfoil abatement.
When residents along the shores of Ham Lake asked the city to help pay for treatments, the City Council declined.
Kirkeide said he believes the residents and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources should pay for it, that spending city taxpayer dollars on it would be inappropriate.
“It’s paying for what you use,” he said. “ … If something is important to you as an individual and you are using it, you probably need to pay for [it] yourself.”
Mark Berndt, president of the Ham Lake Lake Association, said he shares the council’s small-government ideals but believes that the city should consider chipping in on milfoil treatment, which could top $20,000 this year. He said the 50 owners of shoreline land should not have to cover the full cost of an amenity enjoyed by the entire city.
Aanerud, replaced as the head of the park and tree commission, said his support for a more active battle against oak wilt irked the council.
“They believe government ought to be small and do as little as possible,” he said.
But some goals require a group effort, he said. “That’s what government does. They find ways to accomplish things you can’t accomplish on your own,” he said. “Oak wilt is a disease that goes through the air, the roots and beyond property lines, therefore we [tackle] it as a group.”
Council members say they get very few complaints about their approach.
“Residents find it refreshing,” said Council Member Al Parranto. “They are looking for accountability.”