Julie Fliflet campaigned to derail the growth juggernaut in Lake Elmo. She got the job.
And it leaves the new City Council member with a challenge: Now what?
“I have not talked with a single resident that wants Lake Elmo to turn into another Woodbury,” she said. “When they learned about the out-of-control pace of development approved by the City Council, they voted for council members that would protect our city and represent the residents’ views, rather than the developers’.”
With two incumbents ousted in November, it would seem Fliflet is in the majority today in rejecting the pace of growth her predecessors approved.
But it’s less clear just what the new council can do to change things.
The old council greenlighted nine developments, some of which are now much further along than others.
Even in the case of mere “concept approval,” said City Attorney David Snyder, a City Council needs to take care to avoid being “capricious” in just wheeling about and blocking someone’s project.
And when developers have obtained “preliminary plat approval,” Snyder told council members last month, “they’re much more entitled” to go ahead and build. Most have reached that point.
The new majority itself is taking care to avoid being too discouraging. Said holdover Anne Smith: “I’m fearful of a moratorium. I don’t want to scare new commercial tax base away from [the city’s border with] I-94.”
After a pair of sessions devoted to exploring the possibilities, council members agreed to ask city staffers to offer suggestions in writing.
The two factions on the council argue vehemently over just how intense the wave of approvals was last year.
The biggest number thrown around: more than 2,000 new housing units.
That’s a lot in a city that has prided itself on its rural character, meting out on average only around two dozen building permits per year over the past decade, according to Metropolitan Council data.
Smith accused her fellow holdovers of seeking to minimize the reversal by “bandying about different numbers like 1,200, 1,300, 1,400, that are not accurate.”
Replied Mayor Mike Pearson: “You’ve said 2,006. Is that accurate?”
“My apologies,” Smith said, in the sense that fewer than that have “gone through the process. But I have seen that number,” and believes it’s what the city was barreling toward.
Why the confusion? Consider:
A development called InWood, by Hans Hagen Homes, was listed on a staff document as consisting of 275 units, with a footnote the number wasn’t necessarily the final tally. In one of the backgrounders over the past couple of weeks, staffers mentioned that the same site has concept approval for 537 units, counting multifamily units.
City Administrator Dean Zuleger stresses, though, that the new homes don’t all go up at once. Depending on the builder, it might take six to 15 years.
The bigger questions hanging over the new council are these:
• To what extent does it wish to throttle back on growth?
• And what are its realistic options?
Developers are legally protected from wild swings in city politics that place their previous investments at risk.
And even the slower-growth faction isn’t suggesting no growth at all. Smith estimates that she voted for roughly 1,000 new homes in a quest to enliven the city’s quaint but ailing village center area.
Lurking in the background is a regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Council, that has long pushed Lake Elmo to step up its rate of growth, considering its location near major freeways and other factors.
The council won a high-profile court battle over that very question last decade, although the housing implosion later arrived to restrain any thought of major growth.
In January, city staff members began by giving the new council a four-page list of “growth management” options, including some form of moratorium.
But it was a laundry list of conceivable choices, some of which they were advised to stay clear of.
One real source of hope, city staffers said, is signs from the Met Council that it may be willing to ratchet back a bit on its growth expectations for Lake Elmo.
Another basic truth, they said, is that in the normal give-and-take of things, developers do need to maintain a positive relationship with a City Council.
“In real life, people need discretionary approvals, that are judgment calls. When they need concessions [of that type], the council could ask for compression of any numbers.”