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The Faces of Minnesota: One Town's Story
By Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
March 30, 2001
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The new census numbers confirm a controversial fact of Twin Cities life: The growth of small towns on the fringe of the metro area is exploding. Lower land costs are attracting a flock of urban and suburbanites. Take St.Michael, along Interstate 94 on the way from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud. The town's population has doubled in the past decade.

Jason and Kim Bren and their two sons moved to St. Michael from Brooklyn Park three months ago. Homes in the new development start at about $300,000. St. Michael is going through explosive growth, nearly doubling in population the past ten years. Jason is a construction worker, Kim is a registered nurse. They talked with MPR's Dan Olson. Listen.
CENSUS ENUMERATORS TABULATED 2,500 ST. MICHAEL RESIDENTS in 1990. Last year they counted more than 9,000. The growth was spurred five years ago when the town annexed a neighboring township and gained dozens of square miles for development. The Bren family moved into their spacious new St. Michael home three months ago. Kim, Jason and their two sons had lived in in Brooklyn Park for seven years.

"It was too fast growing down there," according to Kim Bren. "It was getting very congested, and we just need to - for the sake of our children - move out where it was less congested."

St. Michael is a two-stoplight town started 150 years ago by ethnic German settlers. It was a quiet Wright County farm town near the Crow River for most of those years. These days, hundreds of new homes are sprouting from holes dug by builders. City officials say 400 new homes went up last year. They predict a similar number for this year.

Darlene Haus, whose family has farmed in the area for generations says the growth is taking a toll.

"Some of the procedural things have maybe fallen through the cracks a bit as far as the proper study of environmental review and the impact, the cumulative impact of such rapid growth," she says.

Haus is angry with a plan to build a road across a portion of her family's 80-acre farm. She's suing the city to try get them to change the plan. Hundreds of acres of farmland have been turned into housing developments. Homebuyers are drawn by relatively low costs. Lots cost about $36,000. Developers often find willing land sellers - farmers delighted to have a pay day after suffering through years of poor farm prices.

"In many cases they're renting their land anyway, and the kids aren't on the farm, and so it's almost a logical outcome," says St. Michael City Manager Bob Derus, who adds that developers pay about $30,000 an acre for farmland.

Derus says the town's explosive growth is putting pressure on St. Michael's development plan. City leaders are trying to corral the activity to keep it close to town. Regulations do not permit big lots with only one house. Buyers looking for hobby-farm-sized parcels have to go beyond the city limits.

Retired farmer and St. Michael Mayor Wayne Kessler says, the starter-castle crowd is often foiled by shrewd sellers, who know they can eventually get more from higher-density housing builders.

St. Michael City Manager Bob Derus says the town's explosive growth is putting pressure on St. Michael's development plan.
"People that come out, they think they can get them cheap," he says. "But the guy that owns them thinks they're only going to go up in value, so he sits on them. It's not a real big force in our city."

St. Michael's growth causes critics of sprawl to cringe. They see Twin Cities' growth fueling a race by developers to buy cheaper land beyond the line set by the Metropolitan Council for urban services, such as water and sewer treatment. But Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale says the census numbers show much of the growth is in established suburbs where development is manageable.

"Clearly over time, the areas that have room for growth are going to grow faster. I think the key issue is are the areas that were built up going to decline or are they going to be part of the growth as well, and I think the answer here is the core cities are taking people because people want to live there," according to Mondale.

Many of St. Michael's new residents have yet to receive their first property-tax statement. The demand for services will inevitably cause the bill to rise. Elected officials, for example, are preparing a school-levy referendum. The graduating class of St. Michael-Albertville Senior High is 100 students, but the number of kindergartners in the system is 300 and growing.