If we must grow, let’s grow better
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
In a growing metro area, populations will have to increase. But good city leadership can help shape that growth into something desirable, that fits the character and priorities of the residents.
I grew up in the Stillwater area, in a little community called Baytown Township. Baytown is an area that did keep its rural feel. There were a few ways that was accomplished. The “city” was never a city, it was a township, and resisted as much government growth as possible, contracting for basically all services- fire, police, snow plowing, etc. This kept taxes very low and avoided a lot of overhead. We also saw how some neighboring cities handled the growth challenges. Woodbury embraced it and soaked up a lot of population for the area as a whole, and is now very developed with very dense housing and commercial development. Lake Elmo took the opposite tack and resisted development.
One of them was the smart things Lake Elmo did was the use of cluster housing. In a cluster housing development, the developer builds housing at slightly higher density on about half the acreage, and sets up a trust or conservation easement to permanently protect the other half. The city was able to promote these development by allowing “bonus density” for developers if they met certain conditions, like trail systems, green space set asides, etc. It is a way to preserve the rural, country identity of the area while still accommodating population growth, and the mechanisms for preserving locking up the open spaces prevented it from being sold later and developed.
Where large developments are necessary, this creates cluster of housing on one side of the parcel and something open on the other side. That other half can be a number of things- some are working farms, some are open spaces, some are lakes or ponds with trail systems for residents to enjoy.
I admire this approach for a few reasons. First, it leads to neighborhoods with a rural feel, and a distinctive character, which is better for existing residents than the spread of Maple Grove and Plymouth style suburban developments. Second, this model is very popular and has won a lot of awards when first introduced, and remains desirable now. Third, it reduces the creation of impermeable surfaces and leaves space for wildlife that would otherwise be displaced, making the environment more natural, and requiring less maintenance and upkeep. That keeps costs for things like snow plowing and street replacement much lower than they would be otherwise.
Corcoran could start to move in this direction by designating development areas with specific zoning rules to encourage this model of development. Some approaches could be to begin excluding required wetlands from green space and park land requirements, increasing park dedication percentages, and working with developers to establish conservation easements for portions of the green spaces created.
Some level of growth is coming, and we need to be smart about how we allow it to happen. If we have to grow, we should ensure we grow in a way that best preserves the character and heritage that have made Corcoran a great place to live.
*Photo and diagram courtesy of Jackson Meadows.