As economy picks up, sprawl threatens to gobble up rural charm in east metro

Lake Elmo is one of the vanishing charming cities in the metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul, bordered on the south as it is by the creeping — and creepy — chain store that is Woodbury, and on the west by an expanding Oakdale.

The Metropolitan Council had a plan for Lake Elmo: Be like everyone else. But Lake Elmo didn’t want to be like everyone else and today it finally won a battle against the Metropolitan Council’s order that it needs to get bigger, the Pioneer Press reports.

Or did it win?

The Metropolitan Council is close to canceling the order, but only because Lake Elmo has — perhaps reluctantly — grown.

It’s added new sewer lines which will allow a few hundred new homes to be built. The highway to the scenic Lake Elmo Reserve, a Washington County park, now sports a snow-covered piece of construction equipment and a sign touting the soon-to-be developed open space with homes “starting in the 300s.” Million-dollar homes now border the reserve.

With the economy picking up a little steam, the debates from the ’90s are returning. Can small towns retain their charm in the onslaught of McMansions?

Woodbury, the little housing engine that did, is opening up the area south of Bailey Road to development. A farm field is about to become a not-terribly-interesting shopping center with the same stores that could be Anywhere USA. Thanks to new sewer lines, “executive mansions” are going up, just like the old days.

And Afton can see it all coming.

The problem is many of the people who own today’s open space are sitting on a gold mine, if only they can sell it to the developers.

Scared by a judge’s order in Lake Elmo which gave some farmers the right to seek annexation by another town so that they could sell their land to developers, Afton officials have proposed an “agritourism” zone to keep its farmers happy and the developers at arm’s length. The zone would allow the farmers to rent space for weddings, or selling pumpkins, establish wineries or pick-your-own strawberry fields.

Some people in the “buffer zone,” told the Pioneer Press they’re being sacrificed by the rest of the town. Others says pumpkins, strawberries, wedding, and wine, will never make the kind of money — especially for the local corporations that own some of the land — that the land turned into one McMansion can.