Halfway through the year, the city of Corcoran has continued to wrestle with development issues, and progress toward maintaining a more natural and rural environment in the midst of large development pressures has been scarce. Here is a breakdown of major issues so far this year.
1. Diamond Lake Regional Trail:
The city council approved a master plan for a major regional trail running north-south through the city. This trail will be constructed by the Three Rivers Park District in segments as parcels develop over the coming decades. Regional trails connect major destinations across cities in the area, like the Medicine Lake Trail connecting French Park and the Elm Creek Park Reserve.
This trail will extend from the West Mississippi Regional Trail in Dayton to the Baker Park Reserve in Medina. Initial segments of the trail will be built in Corcoran through the Tavera and Bellwether developments, and through other parcels as development occurs over time. This will be a significant amenity for the city that will be funded by the Park District, allowing the city to concentrate more parks resources on city parks instead of the trail. The trail will also extend through City Park, making it easier for residents to reach the park without needing to drive there.
2. City Park Remaster Planning:
After significant resident outreach to determine the most valuable elements to residents, City Park is planned to receive a multi-phase update to add and reconfigure amenities over the coming years. Phase 1 is being planned for work in 2023, and is planned to include a new splash pad and playground area, tennis/pickleball courts, and paved parking. The specifics of the plan are under development so the city can apply for county grants and donations to provide as much funding as possible.
3. Broadband Access in Rural Areas
The city’s 2021 application for a federal broadband grant was not successful, but additional avenues are available, and this year we have found an opportunity to work with a Minnesota program with Comcast to provide 1GB fiber internet access to all unserved and underserved homes in the city. If the state approves the proposal and funds their portion, a combination of City ARPA funds and county funding will need to total just $215,000 to build out the system in 2023. This is an excellent use of ARPA funding as many residents suffered from lack of adequate internet bandwidth during the worst parts of the pandemic. We expect to receive word from the state on the status of the proposal in the fall.
Mayor McKee has been instrumental in putting together the pieces to make this broadband program a reality, soliciting and gaining support of our congressional delegation, county officials, and the different potential commercial entities that would actually perform the project work.
4. Water system for NE Corcoran:
Ongoing efforts to develop and control a source of municipal water for the NE district of the city have been successful. Developing this system is important to allow new businesses to begin to bear more of the tax burden, enabling residential property tax relief in the future. While costs to build and develop a system are expected to be substantial, increases in fees the city charges developers are expected to safely cover these costs with no impact to residents.
In light of the current environment, with high inflation and uncertain future conditions, it is very important that the city is conservative in making this decision. Because of the strong demand and large number of projects in 2022, it is expected than even if no further development were to occur for 5 years, the funds collected in 2022 would be adequate to fund the construction of the planned system.
You can see the financial review and the questioning I offered to ensure proceeding is a responsible decision here:
The Challenges and Setbacks
Open Space Preservation:
The city council rejected an approach I advanced in 2021 to incentivize open space preservation in new developments. Council members Schultz, Verenkamp and Bottema argued that developers were likely to advance plans that met the standards for open space but were otherwise undesirable. I argued that without this kind of code change, we will continue to see lower quality developments that fail to preserve the woods, prairie, and other natural resources that are removed when residential development occurs. They determined that the city should try to implement requirements through negotiating for them as part of the existing PUD process instead of putting the necessary incentives into the city code. One stated reason to reject was that this approach would remove control from the council.
Council has never been good at controlling development and keeping it aligned with the values of preserving natural features and a rural feel, and I am deeply skeptical of this or any council being able to achieve its goals through negotiation with developers. If we continue with this approach, we will see progressively smaller lots, higher density development, and less preservation of natural resources, making Corcoran look just like our developed neighbors to the east. Developers will continue to get higher density across their whole projects without the need to set aside and maintain natural space for future generations.
The Conservation Subdivision Ordinance’s optional approach to conservation has now been rejected, so the next approach would be to place requirements into code. Controls on development need to be put into code if they are to be consistently followed.
Knowing how important it is for residents to see the city preserve natural character, I will continue to press for code changes to ensure that development preserves open space as a key goal, and ideally as a requirement, for residential development.
2. Lack of Strong Negotiation by Council
Council was ineffective in negotiating for high quality open space in its first opportunity on June 9th, when councilors Schultz, Vehrenkamp and Bottema voted to approve a development that was 65% townhomes in an area not zoned for townhomes while receiving almost no benefit to the city at all.
In other developments in the city where townhomes were permitted, they were less than 25% of the units built and the city received things like preservation of 30 acres of woodland, the planting of a new urban forest, and major trail construction to help the city build out a trail network to allow people to access these natural features.
This was an unprecedented and unwise giveaway and is likely to encourage even more townhome development in low density areas in the future.
Here is a video of the heart of the discussion for anyone who would like to see it.
To remove the risk of capitulation by this or future councils, the city code needs to be updated to give the council a better negotiating position and to add requirements consistent with the vision for preserving natural character and undeveloped spaces in the city.