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Commentary: Conversation, consensus needed on city direction

Commentary: Conversation, consensus needed on city direction

Posted: Monday, August 15, 2016 3:45 pm

By John Diers

Elmer the ancient elm, featured in the Aug. 6 Prior Lake American, once had plenty of company. The early French explorers called it, “le bois grand,” the Big Woods – 3,000 square miles of hardwood forest with thousands upon thousands of Elmer’s cousins, maple, elm, basswood and walnut – along with millions of wildflowers that bloomed and carpeted the forest floor each spring. Remnants persist, notably Nerstrand State Park just south of Northfield, but the rest is gone, wiped out by 150 years of human activity – settlement, logging and agriculture.

A few scattered individual exceptions managed to dodge disease and development and survive. Elmer is one, but there are others, specifically two huge black walnuts close by the Pleasant Street neighborhood and the adjoining wetland near “downtown” Prior Lake. I encounter them from time to time on my walks. Seventy feet high with a circumference of perhaps 4 feet, both could be over 150 years old, having taken root long before there was a Prior Lake.

Neither will be here much longer. The city has almost $15 million programmed in its capital budget to close Main Avenue and extend Arcadia Avenue, first to Pleasant Street in 2018 and eventually through and across a wetland all the way to a connection with Highway 13. Both of these trees, several homes and ultimately an entire neighborhood will be divided and perish.

We humans are a destructive lot and continue to chew up resources at a near exponential rate, choosing to ignore the limits and the long-term, often unintended, costs and consequences of our depredation. To the best of my knowledge, the city of Prior Lake has never calculated -let alone tracked – the public’s actual return-on-investment on its various (typically road) infrastructure projects over multiple life cycles.

It seems that whenever there’s a project in a long-range plan and there’s “free” (read: taxpayer money) available to do the project and it encourages or can be justified by growth and development, the project gets done. It’s all about developers and landowners making money. There’s no deeper reason than that.

Let’s look at the consequences. Every new home that goes up in Prior Lake comes with a two, or more often, a three-car garage. That means three more cars added to local streets, not to mention garbage trucks, delivery vehicles and school buses that come with the associated economic activity. More cars mean more traffic, noise and pollution, much of the latter ending up in Spring and Prior lakes, both already damaged by invasive species and algae blooms from lawn fertilizer runoff.

Water is another issue. Over 90 percent of the metro area water supply comes from wells. We turn on the tap and take it for granted. Yet, water is a finite resource, and the two major aquifers that supply the metro area have been in decline since suburban development took off in the ’50s. Much of that water is ancient, going back to the end of the last ice age. It will take years to replenish. Meanwhile, area lakes that draw on groundwater, like White Bear, continue to decline. If this continues and we have an extended drought, such as we had in the 1930s, we’ll be able to walk across large areas of Prior Lake. It happened in 1937, and it can happen again.

More development creates demand for more services – police, fire and schools. And with that demand comes higher taxes. Voters recently defeated a $150 million school referendum, yet the need for more schools is there and won’t go away. Meanwhile, a rapidly aging Baby Boom generation on fixed incomes means less revenue and higher social and health care costs. The Office of the Minnesota State Demographer in a 2011 report notes that by the end of the decade there will be more people over 65 than are in our elementary schools today. Link: https://mn.gov/bms-stat/assets/long-run-has-become-the-short-run-msdc-feb2011.pdf

In 2012 the city received an EPA grant to provide support to communities wishing to move from “idea to action” on sustainable land use. The consultant, Envision Minnesota, conducted a study that included a questionnaire and interviews with dozens of residents. I, along with others, served on an advisory committee on the project. Unfortunately, the city never formally released the report, the findings and recommendations in the study, or publish the results of the interviews, presumably because it didn’t include a recommendation to connect the downtown with more roads, but stressed walking, biking and the need for traffic calming. Residents surveyed overwhelmingly mentioned the importance of the community’s small-town feel and the need to preserve it. Nowhere was there any support for growth and development or the desire to see Prior Lake become another Woodbury, Richfield or Bloomington. The findings and the survey are available on the Citizens for Accountable Government website.

Policymakers, businesses and residents should “pull together” and have a conversation about development and what Prior Lake wants to be when it grows up. Some communities in Oregon, and elsewhere, have simply rejected development and told developers to get lost. Locally, Lake Elmo has fought a running battle with the Met Council over this issue. That’s one extreme. The other is to just fall in line with whatever the Met Council decrees and leave it to laissez faire and the marketplace.

Somewhere in the middle a consensus is possible, but we have a long way to go. Let’s have the conversation.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)