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The Battle of Woodbury
By Dan Olson
November 20, 2000
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Woodbury, just east of St. Paul, is one of Minnesota's fastest growing cities. But residents there have decided to reduce by more than half the number of permits issued for home building. City officials say they are carrying out the wishes of residents who want to slow the city's development. Woodbury's decision means many landowners, including one of the city's last remaining farm families, won't be cashing in anytime soon on the city's growth. Holding back land from development is also helping push up the cost of lots for home buyers.
Woodbury's fast-paced development has pushed residential neighbors up to the boundaries of the few remaining farms in the city.
(MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

THE WAY WOODBURY IS REINING IN GROWTH is to ration land available for development. The result is large portions of open space inside the city's boundary's are off limits to building for up to 20 years. Woodbury Development Director Dwight Picha says the goal is limits to permits issued for new houses to around 600 a year.

Picha says the decision to slow housing developing comes from two years of study by citizens and elected officials.

"We heard through the comprehensive planning process that they felt the community was growing too quickly especially during the 1990," Picha says.

Quickly is one way to describe Woodbury's growth; explosive also fits. Woodbury's population doubled in the 1980s to 20,000 people and more than doubled again this past decade to 46,000 residents. Houses dot thousands of acres of gently rolling land once tilled by farmers. Slower development means the handful of farmers who remain, including dairy farmer Wayne Schilling, may be able to stay in business a few more years.

Wayne and his wife, Betty Schilling, a Methodist minister, enjoy life on their 80-cow dairy farm along Woodbury's southern boundary and have no intention of quitting any time soon. But when they do, Wayne is counting on selling land to finance retirement. Landowners in areas of Woodbury where the city is issuing permits for development are getting $35,000 an acre for their property. But Woodbury's plan puts off for 18 years any development in the area where Wayne Schilling farms.

The city's staged-development plan appears to guarantee the Schillings will be able to continue farming. But already a school, an athletic facility and projected road widening have or will take land the Schillings rent to raise crops.

Betty Schilling supports slowing the city's growth. She says the city stands up for them when neighbors complain about barnyard smells or when the occasional stray dairy cow wanders onto school grounds. But she wonders if the city's development plan can withstand pressure from home builders and buyers. "If it doesn't happen that way, then we're kind of feeling like, 'Ok, how do we hang on, how do we be in this suburb, where really, we're not very desirable people?'" Betty Schilling says.

The other group feeling the pressure on their pocket book from Woodbury's decision is homebuyers. Lots for homebuilding are already pricey - in the $70,000 range - because of strong demand. Squeezing the supply by putting sizable chunks of the city out of bounds for immediate development causes prices to go higher, causing home buyers to search elsewhere.

Buyers are increasingly attracted by lower land prices in communities on the fringes of the Twin Cities, including border counties in western Wisconsin. That kind of leap-frogging by home buyers fuels sprawl, and drives up costs in the distant communities when the newcomers want better roads, more schools and other services. But Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale says the planned growth in Woodbury and other suburbs still accounts for about 80 percent of the region's growth, with 20 percent on the fringes. He's not worried the leap-frogging is subverting the effort to manage development.

"Development within the seven-county metro and outside has remained pretty consistent and that's one of the guideposts we look at to see if our policies are spot on or if we are off and need to adjust," Mondale says.

A slower growing U. S. economy may help trim home-buyer demand and slow the rise in land costs that is putting suburban housing out of reach of some buyers. Or the traditionally more stable Twin Cities economy may keep buyer demand strong and land costs rising putting pressure on cities and elected officials to reassess their growth plans.