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Residents fight Rochester's expansion plans
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
November 12, 2001
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Recent lawsuits against the city of Rochester raise the question whether the city has too much power annexing land outside its borders. The number of these lawsuits has risen in the past year. All of the legal action comes from townships along Rochester's border. Rochester has grown faster than any city its size in the state recently. It's now Minnesota's third largest city.

Brenda Dicken, who chairs the Rochester Township board, is fighting an attempt by the city of Rochester to annex several neighborhoods in her township. The city faces several lawsuits over what some consider aggressive annexation practices.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)

Brenda Dicken gets out of her car and walks across a winding country road. Across the street, she says, is the latest victim of city sprawl.

"You can see the type of landscape people have out here. This is typical," says Dicken. "To change the character of this neighborhood, I think, would be a shame."

Dicken is the chairman of the Rochester Township Board. She is standing on the edge of a two-acre residential lot peppered with oak trees. Beyond the trees is Rochester's skyline, just three miles away.

This neighborhood, Merry Hills, has been told by the city of Rochester it will no longer be a part of Rochester township. Four other neighborhoods have been told the same thing. Instead, residents of those areas will become citizens of the city of Rochester.

The Merry Hills neighborhood is surrounded by the city. According to state law, once that happens, annexation is automatic. Residents of Merry Hills and other neighborhoods are suing the city to stop the annexation.

This year, people from many townships who don't want to be part of Rochester have fought the city. According to Brenda Dicken, the city is violating the rights of citizens -citizens who, she says, don't have a choice in the matter.

"The decision to annex was made by a city government for the people living in the township. The township residents did not vote for city officials, and they have no say in city government," says Dicken. "To say that people shouldn't have the right to vote for who is going to represent them, and how they are going to be able to live, just does not seem right. There is something flawed in this procedure."

Rochester is one of the state's fastest growing cities. Its area in 1990 was six times larger than in 1950. Compare that to St. Cloud, another fast-growing city, which didn't even double in size over the same period.

Rochester has relied on two methods of annexation. In one, a property owner petitions the city to become a part of it. In the other, land that's totally surrounded by the city becomes a part of it automatically.

This isn't the only lawsuit against Rochester over annexation. There's another one against Olmsted County. Residents of 13 townships have come together to sue the county. They say they, and not the county, should make planning and zoning decisions inside township borders. Two weeks ago, the city of Rochester entered this lawsuit as co-defendant with the county.

Townships traditionally look to the county for protection in matters like this. But according to State Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, it doesn't work that way anymore.

"There's a lack of trust in the surrounding townships - or any of the townships in Olmsted County - on this issue," says Kuisle. "They see it as being nothing more than an arm of Rochester, and not really an Olmsted County planning and zoning board."

"It's probably the ugliest map you could see of a city...they have no real plan on how they're going to grow in the future."

- State Rep. Bill Kuisle, on Rochester's annexation policies

Rochester is the only city in the state that has combined its planning board with the county's. Kuisle represents a district of both township and city governments. He says the Olmsted County planning staff is looking the other way when townships need help.

"You're supposed to be looking out for the interests of the county as well as for the interests of the city. The planning staff looks out for the interests for the city more than it does for the county," says Kuisle.

Kuisle is sponsoring legislation that would make cities provide services like sewer and water to annexed areas within two years. He says those public services are one of the few benefits that come with annexation, but the city doesn't always offer them. In fact, in one of these cases, the neighborhoods won't even receive city sewer and water.

Judy Gilbert lives in one of these neighborhoods. She says not getting city services is on a long list of reasons why she doesn't want to be a part of Rochester.

"We have to interact now with the very impersonal and not very friendly form of government. We have not had a lot of success in terms of friendly encounters with our city council members," Gilbert says. "The only difference we can see is higher taxes as a result of being annexed into the city of Rochester."

Gilbert and others say the main reason the city has been on a mission to annex land is to make money. Whenever a city grows, its tax base expands. Terry Adkins, City Attorney of Rochester, says the city annexes proprety for other, more practical reasons. He says the only way to improve city services is through annexation.

The city is so concerned about the lawsuit against Olmsted county that it hired two attorneys. One of them is Robert Freilich, a Kansas City-based attorney who consults with cities all over the world on development issues. Adkins says this lawsuit is important because the future of the city is at stake.

"They see the future of the city as far as how it grows, how it provides services, and how it pays for those services, to be at stake in this lawsuit," Adkins says. "That's why we're going through the effort we're going through - to make sure, number one, we're a party, and number two, to make sure the townships don't succeed."

One of the reasons Rochester is working so hard to annex land is to make city services more efficient. Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann says annexing land now is part of a plan to make it easier to provide better services, and to contain urban sprawl.

"It's more efficient to have police not drive many miles to serve the population, but driving fewer miles. It's cheaper to provide water and sewer where you have more people connecting into it than when you have fewer people connecting into it. It's cheaper to run buses to a concentrated area than running buses to outside areas."

Neumann says this is part of what the city calls "smart growth." According to Rep. Kuisle, the city's growth has been anything but smart.

"If you look at the annexation map of Rochester, it's pretty much a botched thing - they like bringing it up in the Legislature. They show the map of Rochester, and it's probably the ugliest map you could see of a city. And it's a problem, because they have no real plan on how they're going to grow in the future - what areas they'll annex and what areas they don't annex."

Kuisle says one of the only ways out for townships is to ask the state for permission to incorporate. That would protect them legally. Some township board members have discussed this option, but they say legal costs would be too expensive. Especially now, when many are spending their money defending themselves against a growing city.

More Information
  • Minnesota Association of Townships
  • City of Rochester