The Ramsey County city of North Oaks is an island of relative tranquility in the densest Minnesota county, full of winding, privately owned streets, private parks and homes on generous lots.

The city wants to keep that character in its newest development — a 72-acre neighborhood with 23 lots — but also have it hooked up to region's sewer system.

That would require the Metropolitan Council to let the city stray from its rules requiring higher density for communities tied into regional sewer systems — something Met Council staff warns could set a precedent as the regional governing body prepares to vote on the issue April 10.

"When we think about putting a standard in place, when we start to allow for exceptions to that standard, that standard becomes meaningless," said Lisa Barajas, the Met Council's community development director.

Exception to the rule

The proposed subdivision, called "Red Forest Way South," is now designated as "rural residential" in the city's comprehensive plan, a category that denotes larger lots where homes are on septic systems. With roughly one home every three acres, the proposed density of Red Forest Way South works out to 0.3 homes per acre.

That's far below the three to five homes per acre minimum the Met Council typically requires in a neighborhood considered "emerging suburban edge," which allows homes to hook up to regional sewers.

North Oaks declined a request to comment on its proposal. At a public hearing last month, City Planner Kendra Lindahl asked the Met Council to consider allowing Red Forest Way South to become an emerging suburban edge neighborhood despite its low density, arguing the change would not set a precedent because North Oaks faces a unique set of circumstances.

The city says it's the last subdivision it intends to develop, and deed restrictions covering almost the whole city designed to conserve natural areas prohibit further subdivision.

The land North Oaks sits on was purchased by railroad baron James J. Hill in the 1880s and operated as a research farm until Hill's descendants developed it, starting in the 1950s. For many years, North Oaks was a gated community. In February, the median North Oaks home sold for $750,000, according to the Minneapolis Area Realtors, compared to $300,000 countywide.

Lindahl said a lift station for the regional sewage system is within 400 feet of the development, making connection easy, and she argued that limiting septic systems protects the water supply.

Lindahl argued North Oaks' ask is not a substantial departure from Met Council policy. "It is our last subdivision, we won't be back, but we think it makes sense to connect to the sanitary sewer for these final lots in the city when the pipe is literally right there," she said.

Met Council staff members disagreed. In a report, they characterized North Oaks' request as a substantial departure from policy.

Besides setting a precedent, staff members said it's expensive for the whole system to connect disparate homes to regional sewer. And allowing the change wouldn't help the city reach its overall comprehensive plan density goal.

Big picture, Barajas said, the council's responsibility is to manage growth in the region, making the most of land and infrastructure investments given expected growth.

"Once you allow it in one place, then it becomes something that must be allowed everywhere," Barajas said. "And then that has a regional effect that certainly becomes unsustainable, both in our use of land but also in our ability to provide regional infrastructure that can support that in an economically feasible way."

Met Council staff presented options for North Oaks. Among them: Build the neighborhood as proposed but on septic systems, or up the density to put Red Forest Way South on the regional sewer system.

Barajas said covenants on the land have been amended several times in the past and could likely be again to allow higher density.

If the Met Council votes to deny North Oaks' request, the city could appeal.

Few weighed in during the public comment period on the change outside those with North Oaks affiliations. In letters, a representative of the Minnesota Land Trust and a North Oaks resident supported North Oaks' proposal, arguing regional wastewater hookups better protect water, while several residents of the Twin Cities region asked the council to oppose the change on account of the proposal not meeting regional density goals.