It's over

Lake Elmo leaders rejoice; A decade later, Met Council lifts order to triple population

Lake Elmo leaders on Feb. 5 authorized staff to sign an agreement, dissolving a burdensome mandate to triple the city's population by 2030.

"It is a great day," Mayor Mike Pearson said at the Lake Elmo City Council meeting. "Words fail me in describing this act. I think it speaks for itself."

For more than a decade, the Metropolitan Council and the city were at odds. The regional planning agency pushed for significant growth, while Lake Elmo clung to its "open-space character."

As a result of a lawsuit, the Met Council and the city entered into a contractual obligation in 2005 to drastically expand Lake Elmo, fueling significant tension between the two entities for years.

In January, city staff and the Met Council discussed the possibility of terminating the so-called "memorandum of understanding," following the installation of municipal sewer lines in some areas and the completion of the city's long-range plan that anticipates enough growth to financially support the infrastructure, according to city documents.

In a Jan. 14 letter describing the terms to end the order, a Met Council representative wrote that the city's recent planning and investment "have laid the groundwork for the city to accommodate urban development in a way that addresses city and regional interests."

According to the agreement, the city is released from the order if it proves that two major sewer projects are funded:

First, a $4 million sewer service line on a stretch of Lake Elmo Avenue. The city is responsible for the majority of the cost. About $1 million will come from other sources.

Second, developer Lennar Homes must pay the $1.5 million for sewer services of a 317-unit housing development expected along Interstate 94.

The city is expected to comply with the terms in mid-March.

Growing pains

Conflict boiled up around 2004. Lake Elmo officials called the Met Council's anticipated growth numbers unrealistic, and the draft of the city's major planning document didn't match up with the regional planning body's projections, according to a 2009 Review article.

Without a resolution, the two entities clashed in a drawn-out lawsuit. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Met Council, saying it has the authority to reject the city's comprehensive plan when it significantly departs from regional goals.

As a result, the Met Council mandated a daunting uptick in Lake Elmo's population. It said the city must swell to 24,000 residents by 2030, when the metro area's population was expected to jump by more than a million people. The 2010 U.S. Census put the city's population at 8,069.

The primary section slated for major development, and embroiled in the disagreement, was a stretch of land between 10th Street and Interstate 94.

Lake Elmo didn't just need to grow. It was legally required to increase the amount of residents hooking up to municipal sewer service.

If the city didn't meet five-year growth checkpoints, the Met Council would've charged the city more than $1 million in wastewater inefficiency fees, city documents said.

The Met Council eased up on the requirements, revising them in 2010 after the 2008 real-estate market crash snuffed out development in Lake Elmo, according to city documents and past Review articles. Changes to the city's comprehensive plan spurred more alterations in 2012.

A turn for the better

The combative relationship took a turn in mid-2013.

The Met Council released a forecast that significantly slashed anticipated growth. The data suggested that the city would hit only 11,700 residents by 2040, but Lake Elmo was still bound to the expectations in the memorandum of understanding.

The Met Council and city staff were hoping to collaborate to find a "happy medium," where the city would still foster some expansion.

At the recent council meeting, city administrator Dean Zuleger acknowledged staffers, including planning director Kyle Klatt, as the driving force behind the order's "sunset," working with the Met Council to reach a compromise.

The council and members of the public then applauded staff.

Although Lake Elmo's development efforts are far from over, release from the obligation is apparently a huge relief.

"It does let us control our own destiny, but we still have a lot of work to do," Zuleger said.

Almost a party

Many at the Feb. 5 council meeting were practically giddy about the milestone.

"This is a hallmark day for the city," Zuleger said. 

As Lake Elmo resident Todd Ptacek put it: "I can't believe we don't have champagne here."

Council member Anne Smith, who was on the council when the memorandum was established, made the motion to follow the terms of the new agreement between the city and the Met Council. Pearson seconded it, and the council unanimously passed it. Attendees applauded.

"I can't believe it," council member Justin Bloyer said.

Smith added, "It's cool."

Looking ahead

Smith said the requirement made everything focus on just numbers; about "how many houses we had to get in."

"What is so extraordinary about this now, after 10 years, for me, is the fact that we don't have to put 5,000 houses down (Interstate) 94," Smith said. "It's such a great thing to know that now those numbers can be less. The developments can be better quality. It's a great feeling."

Bloyer agreed with others' assertions, saying that the council can now look at the city as a whole.

The city's still on track for major growth.

The city committed to three new sewer lines in 2013, a staff memo said. Zuleger said the city is suggesting that Lake Elmo will grow to 18,000 by 2040, in part to mitigate water rates.

The city is awaiting fresh forecasts from the Met Council, and will have to submit its next comprehensive plan by 2018, he said.

Zuleger said the city may see numbers from Thrive MSP 2040, a long-range regional planning effort, in the next six weeks.

Luckily, "a forecast is a forecast, not a contractual obligation that we need to perform against," Zuleger said.

Bloyer pointed out the city is tied to some reasonable expansion in order to pay for the sewer lines already in the ground.

"Some people are insinuating that (terminating the understanding) means that everything stops," Bloyer said. "We can't put the brakes on it, because we're obligated to pay for (those sewer lines) now.

"They're doing a great service by releasing us, but we're still obligated because we have to pay for it."

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
 

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