Population growth in once high-flying Woodbury is stalling amid signs of uncertainty around changing attendance boundaries for schools.
Permits to build new homes are sliding a bit after charging back after the housing crash, planners are warning the City Council. They point to six possible factors, but one stands out as unique to Woodbury: concern over which school a family's kids will end up in, the state-of-the-art East Ridge High or the much older Park or Woodbury high schools.
It's looking as if home buyers in soon-to-be-built subdivisions at the southern end of the city will be able to see the $90 million, five-year old East Ridge from their kitchens — but the kids will attend vintage schools farther away.
With hundreds of acres near East Ridge slated for development, assistant superintendent Mike Vogel of the South Washington County School District told City Council members during an informal workshop, "We want to make changes before development occurs; we won't make a change after they move in and expect to go to one high school."
Still, the situation makes council members nervous.
"If you can see the school from your home, it stands to reason you go there," Council Member Paul Rebholz said.
Colleague Julie Ohs asked: "What will you say to developers, when families may prefer East Ridge?"
"We think the high schools are comparable," Vogel said. "You can get a quality education at any of them. We encourage people to look at the school and meet the staff, rather than decide based on what I call 'Shiny Building Syndrome.' "
Still, the district concedes it's not just newness that distinguishes the school. It hopes to sell voters on a referendum within the next 12 months or so that is aimed in part at upgrading the much older Park and Woodbury high schools.
The money would expand and upgrade performing arts — East Ridge's Ordwayesque theater is one of its splashier features. Another aim would be to "dress up" Woodbury High's exterior to give it more curb appeal.
Adding to the uncertainty: pending changes in the boundaries of other district schools.
"Our 1960s buildings — and that's several across the district — are stable to declining" in enrollment as the neighborhoods around them age, Vogel said. But there are no proposed maps for elementary or middle schools
Asked by the council what the city can do to help the district, Vogel said:
"We'd love to see more development. All of our growth in enrollment is predicated on new housing starts, and we shared the optimism of the city as to what we expected would be happening. Some boundary decisions play into that."
Some of the development that is taking place is "more senior-oriented" as society ages, development chief Dwight Picha told the City Council.
"We're working with other property owners and developers and have concept plans on properties, but no one is coming forward with applications" to proceed further, he said.
The fact that things feel stalled has implications for years to come, Picha added. "The lead time is significant. Anything you approved now, you wouldn't see until 2017."
So what's going on? Are folks waiting to see boundaries firmed up? asked Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.
To an extent, Picha said.
"Schools are a much bigger issue than ever before in my career in Woodbury," he said. "They were always important, but now they are huge: the number one criteria. In the Wayzata district, anything approved is built immediately. It's extremely important."
In Woodbury, permits for new residential units rose to more than 1,000 in 2004, the Metropolitan Council reports, before sinking to a low of about 250 in 2009, then climbing to nearly 400 in 2013.
But that's still well short of the 600 the city is aiming for. Now city planners are warning that the 2015 mark is likely to be closer to 275, and the figure could dip still further in 2016.
"When you're building in the line of sight of a school, the market assumes you'll go there," said Woodbury senior planner Eric Searles. "What this means to salability, I don't know, but it's a question mark in buyers' minds."