Everything that is tearing Lake Elmo apart is captured on the tape of the June 9 meeting of the City Council, two hours and 43 minutes in.
Mayor Mike Pearson reminds his colleagues that what they are about to do totally repudiates a unanimous vote of the city’s planning commission. He wishes they would change their minds. “Any discussion?” he asks. The three women who are about to defeat him stare down in silence. The mayor loses 3-2 — yet again.
For the women, the vote says: Woodbury-style suburban sprawl stops at the Lake Elmo border.
To those who’ve fought for decades to keep Lake Elmo pure, Woodbury is chain stores and look-alike subdivisions; Lake Elmo, just across Interstate 94, is wooded amid cornfields with a village Main Street whose miniature library lies a short stroll away from a fly-fishing store that inhabits the frame of an ancient general store.
But Lake Elmo, a city of about 8,000 residents just a few minutes east of St. Paul, is not the island of tranquillity it appears. This month’s messy departure of the city’s top administrator marks the eighth time that job has changed hands since 2003, a continuation of turmoil that goes back more than 30 years.
So, why can’t one of the state’s wealthiest communities, teeming with successful, educated professionals, including a share of the executive corps at nearby 3M, get its act together?
To pose the question is to prick a deep well of feeling. “This is very emotional,” said John Schiltz, owner of the Lake Elmo Inn. “I’ve lived and breathed this for so many years.”
To some, it’s all about a series of rabble-rousing, polarizing politicians who’ve stoked needless tension for decades and stifled healthy growth. The 3M influence for them is not a paradox but an explanation.
“Executive-level people from big companies like 3M and Andersen Windows want their little sanctuary,” Schiltz said, “and they don’t have to worry [who gets hurt], they don’t care about the businesses here. They don’t want ‘more people in,’ but they themselves are living on land my relatives farmed.”
Others blame a variety of forces, including land speculators, out-of-town business owners, pushy résumé-building administrators and a meddling Metropolitan Council.
“It comes at us from all sides,” said Tom Armstrong Jr., son of a 1970s mayor. “There’ve been nasty political fights in this town for 30 years.”
Fittingly, there’s even fierce disagreement over the proper arithmetic to measure the turmoil.
How many top administrators, up to and including Dean Zuleger, the latest to leave, have actually come and gone over the past three decades?
Before 1990, when Mary Kueffner, a longtime city staffer, took the job and held it until 2003, the position turned over five times in seven years.
Veteran council member Anne Smith objects to including all the “actings” and “interims.” Others say the rapid, sudden departures are a key sign of turmoil.
Smith objects to including the fellow who died on the job: “It said right in his obituary that he suffered from high blood pressure!” Others maintain that the death had to be stress-induced.
Those who contend the problem isn’t Lake Elmo, but rather the outside forces looming over the city, say that a key source of stress for decades has been the hiring of city administrators who see the job as a steppingstone to the big time.
“They want to promote development, build up the staff and budget and stuff their own résumé in hopes of running Eden Prairie,” Armstrong said. “The one person who really lasted” — Kueffner, — “had no ambitions outside of this city.”
Bruce Messelt, one of the short-timers (2009-2011), said that he wasn’t using the city that way. He left a job running a bigger city — Moorhead, Minn. — for Lake Elmo out of a fondness for Stillwater and the east metro.
“I loved the small-town spirit,” he said. “I remember winding up with my picture in the paper for helping pour concrete at City Hall.”
Most do agree that there has been a succession of fiery citizens determined to preserve the purity of the town. One of them, Steve DeLapp, a prominent former council member, confesses wryly: “I didn’t make a whole lotta friends from a personality standpoint.”
But he and others note that the reason the flamethrowers have carried weight over the years is that voters have elected them to office — repeatedly, and despite all the wrangling.
They see themselves as warriors in a cause, who naturally get overwrought at times.
“It’s a battle,” said DeLapp. “There are some very selfish people.”
The intensity stems in part from a constant fear that Lake Elmo is on the cusp of permanent ruin. Former Mayor Susan Dunn once said: “I love Lake Elmo. It is a jewel. But it can be so easily changed, and if you mess it up, you can’t return it. We don’t need places with a million lights and flashing neon.”
Reminded of that comment, Dunn said recently: “People here want a place where it’s peaceful, and you want to shut your eyes, relax with a glass of wine and think good thoughts.”
Met Council data show that since 1970, while Woodbury has authorized the building of almost 25,000 new residential units, Lake Elmo has approved fewer than 2,000 — about as many in 44 years as Woodbury was authorizing over a period of 14 or 15 months at its peak.
Rural charm threatened?
The latest flare-up in Lake Elmo came after the City Council last year approved a burst of new developments.
“It took us 100 years to get to 2,779 [homes] and in 18 months they approved 2,000 more,” said Julie Fliflet, who won election to the City Council in November by attacking the approvals. “And at the same time, they increased our debt from $10 million to $20 million.”
Fliflet and another critic who won a council seat last fall created, with Smith, the three-woman majority that now rules. From that moment, Zuleger foresaw the strong possibility of his own demise.
It’s all a surprise and a disappointment to a guy like Bob Hawkins, who had no idea of the local turmoil when he left Bozeman, Mont., two years ago to run a fly-fishing shop on Lake Elmo’s quaint main drag.
“The whole town is not too happy about any of this,” he said. “Look at all the signs in people’s yards, protesting against the new City Council. It feels like a little old town that nothing has been done to it, everything’s out of code.”
Still, he said, business for him is great: “We’re killin’ it.”