Unsustainable development

There’s been a lively discussion on the Locally Grown Northfield website of the request by four landowners that the City of Northfield annex 530 acres of land in Greenvale Township. unsustainable-development.jpgRoss Currier, member of the Northfield Planning Commission, blogged on the issue for Locally Grown in advance of the April 29th public hearing on the annexation request. There have been a number of thoughtful comments before, during and after the well-attended (perhaps 80 people on hand) public hearing, from folks in favor of the annexation, those opposed, and those in the middle and/or looking for more information prior to forming a firm opinion.

Some advocates say it’s a no-brainer: this is a way to be proactive in bringing significant acreage under Northfield’s planning and development control, and facilitates potential commercial and/or industrial development. Advocates believe this is a critical step to take to signal potential developers that the City of Northfield is “open for business” and ready to facilitate development that will broaden the tax base and create local jobs.

Those who question the wisdom of this annexation (myself included) have a variety of concerns. I can only speak for myself. I certainly am in favor of broadening Northfield’s tax base, and adding good jobs would absolutely be a good thing. I simply don’t think the proposed annexation is the right way to accomplish these laudable goals.

In the simplest possible terms, I think this annexation would 1) promote sprawl, and 2) open up a significant amount of prime farmland for development at a time when everything possible should be done to protect prime farmland.

City staff addressed the issue of sprawl on pages four and five of the Planning Commission public hearing packet. They stated the “2001 Comprehensive Plan Criteria” #2 as “New development is contiguous to the urban areas already served by municipal infrastructure. Skipping over vacant undeveloped land is not a cost effective approach to extending urban services and makes the skipped over parcel less usable from an agriculture or development perspective.” The staff response followed: “This property is adjacent to the existing City limits and contiguous to urban areas already served by municipal infrastructure. Therefore, no undeveloped land would be skipped over.

This staff response is demonstrably incorrect. While the land in the annexation request is indeed adjacent to City limits, it is so only because St. Olaf College agreed to include 90 acres of its land, the land adjacent to the existing City limits, in the annexation request to “facilitate discussion of the annexation request,” in the words of St. Olaf facilities director Pete Sandberg at the public hearing. St. Olaf has stated publicly that it has no plans to develop these 90 acres in the foreseeable future. The proposed development land (the remaining 440 acres of the annexation request), at its closest point, is therefore half a mile west of any developed land and municipal infrastructure (the Northfield Hospital, which is itself already half a mile west of any other developed land). The staff response is incorrect: if a developer comes to the City with a development proposal for this proposed annexation, infrastructure will have to skip over half a mile of undeveloped land, the St. Olaf land agricultural land between the development property and the Northfield Hospital, at a minimum.

This contributes to sprawl in three ways:

  1. The closest edge of any development on this property would be a minimum of one-half mile from the nearest developed land of any type within the City limits, and would require build-out of a minimum of a minimum of a half mile of infrastructure.
  2. The closest edge of any development on this property would be more than three miles from downtown Northfield. There are many other developable parcels of land, including many of significant acreage with good highway and/or rail access, closer to the center of the community.
  3. The closest edge of any development on this property would be more than one mile from the nearest Northfield residential neighborhood.

The 440 acres of proposed development land is almost all prime, nearly flat farmland with high-quality soil. (A relatively small wooded area and a small wetland area are included in the area as well.) At a time when food riots are breaking out in numerous countries around the world, the world hunger problem is growing worse, food prices are soaring in the U.S. and around the world, it is more important than ever that we be good stewards of farmland.
If we need industrial development land, let’s find it in other areas that won’t take this huge amount of farmland out of production. We can do so if we get creative.

I’m not at all convinced that we need a 440-acre industrial park to attract the kinds of businesses that will help Northfield thrive in the future (by increasing the tax base and providing new living-wage jobs). I’m thoroughly convinced that planting a 440-acre industrial park in a remote location at a time when

  • fuel prices are soaring, and the site offers no rail (which is a more fuel-efficient shipping method than trucking) access
  • development patterns may be radically different in the near to mid-term future (because we are coming to the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel-party era)
  • the City’s taxpayers would be on the hook for extending infrastructure (with the HOPE that we would reclaim the expense at some distant time in the future)

is NOT a good idea. It certainly isn’t my idea of economically, environmentally and socially sustainable development. I think we can do better than this. The Planning Commission, and the City Council, should reject this annexation request.

One Comment

  1. Stephanie Henriksen
    Posted January 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Bruce,
    Thanks for your input on the 530-acre industrial park. Brian O’Connell and two others were at Bridgewater Township meeting Tuesday night, Jan. 13, presenting West Armstrong Business and Industrial Area Concept Plan
    for 475 total acres between Heath Creek on the north and Spring Brook (trout stream) on the southl

    I was bowled over, having expected them to conform to our mutual annexation agreement which limits annexation to 30 acres/yr (it would take them 5 years to take 150 acres of Sec. 2 ). But they are going west to Decker Ave at the midpoint of Sec. 3, with Leif Knecht’s encouragement from behind the scenes. O’Connell said Bob Gill and Ken Prawer want to commit all of their land at one time. Similar to the plan Larry Larson worked out for landowners to the northwest.

    I wouldn’t doubt if my other two supervisors go along with this. Takes two out of three votes on the Board.

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