Emily Peterson walks the banks of the Rum River and worries about what could become of the slice of wilderness outside her back door, where her children weave through quiet thickets and scan the sky for eagles near their St. Francis home.

The Petersons' property sits within a swath of rural land that city officials say is key for future growth. St. Francis is petitioning the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to loosen its rules for development on nearly 500 acres near the Rum, one of six rivers protected by the state's Wild and Scenic Rivers Program.

DNR officials say they've never been faced with a request quite like this. The city is asking the state to allow denser development on smaller lots along the river, similar to what's already permitted in more built-out areas near the Rum in other parts of the northern Anoka County community of 7,500.

Wetlands have curtailed options for building new housing in St. Francis. City officials backing the petition say the open acreage along the river will unlock a bigger tax base and afford them a better shot at attracting new shops and businesses.

"A lot of people are screaming that this is going to destroy the city. It's not," said Mayor Steve Feldman. "What it does is give us potential for growth."

But the request has alarmed some residents and conservation groups, who worry that building more homes than what's currently allowed could alter the Rum's character.

"I'm not against development," said Peterson, who often takes her children on nature walks near the Rum. "But I hope it can be done to preserve the beauty of the river for the next generation."

The city's unusual petition has left the DNR wading into uncharted waters, with state officials fielding public comments until Friday ahead of their May 17 decision.

Filling out the wish list

In many ways, St. Francis owes its existence to the Rum, a river that unspools from Lake Mille Lacs and meanders south about 150 miles to the Mississippi River. Early settlers dammed the river there, milling grain and lumber and operating a ferry.

Locals say the river remains a central asset to the city, attracting kayakers, canoeists and families looking to trade the hubbub of the urban core for more peaceful vistas.

The Rum was added to Minnesota's Wild and Scenic Rivers Program in 1978 under a law enacted in the early 1970s, similar to the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that protects the St. Croix River. Both programs emerged in an era marked by mounting efforts to protect the environment, said Dan Petrik, who manages Minnesota's program.

The DNR oversees the rules guiding land use along rivers included in the state's system. Stretches of these rivers are classified as wild, scenic or recreational, ranging from least to most developed. Wild rivers flow past untouched or "essentially primitive" land, while scenic and recreational rivers can be ringed by development or farms.

Standards for new development — such as lot size, lot width and setbacks from the river — are most strict for wild rivers, less strict in scenic segments and least restrictive for recreational waterways.

The Rum, as it curls through St. Francis, falls in the middle with a scenic designation.

"It's really to help preserve for generations the natural characteristics of these rivers," Petrik said.

St. Francis wants to cut the sizes of lots next to the river from a four-acre minimum to just under half an acre. The petition asks the state to reduce lot width minimums from 250 feet to 70 feet and river setbacks from 150 feet to 75 feet, among other changes.

Local leaders say much has changed in the decades since the state made its rules. Development now nips at the southern edge of the rural area. City officials point out that more developed pockets of St. Francis hugging the Rum already follow the looser rules they're seeking for the land in the northern part of the city.

"The intent of the request is to match the urban standards just south of this," said City Administrator Joe Kohlmann.

The mayor said he tells residents that more rooftops mean a better chance at getting a drugstore and other common wish list amenities in town.

"We're concerned about the environment, wildlife, all of it," Feldman said. "This isn't a fight between rural versus urban. … It's what's best for the city at large."

But some worry the decision could set a troubling precedent.

"It's not wise to make exceptions," said Kriste Ericsson, who helps organize an annual river cleanup through Friends of the Rum River, a conservation group. "The protection … is there for a reason."

'A special place'

In recent weeks, city leaders urged residents to voice their support to the DNR.

One benefit touted in their plea is that denser development would mean extending city water and sewer into the petition area, which could add more users to the system and cut monthly bills across town — a thorny topic in St. Francis.

The city's new $24 million wastewater treatment plant has roiled residents frustrated by climbing water and sewer rates in recent years.

Plus, city officials say, extending city sewer and water services could help protect the Rum by ridding the area of septic systems, which can leech into the river. Much of the area is farmland.

Margaret Gjertvig's family farm just west of the Rum goes back generations and stretches over about 100 acres. The 82-year-old said she doesn't plan to sell the farm to a developer and wants to keep the land as she remembers it growing up.

"They can find some place else to build," Gjertvig said.

Diane Edwards, Gjertvig's niece, spent her childhood playing along the quiet riverbanks flush with wildlife and birdsong.

"I'm not trying to fight City Hall. I'm not trying to fight growth," said Edwards, 62. "But right along the river is such a special place."

The story is much the same on the farm just across the river, where Darwin Gamm, 65, said there are no plans to develop his family's roughly 300 acres.

Not that the city has developers already lined up for all the land, the mayor said. City officials say they aren't pushing for development so much as giving more options to landowners if they decide to sell.

"Change is hard for people," Feldman said. "Progress is a double-edged sword."

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751