The intersection of Highway 169 and County Road 9 in Baldwin Township looks like many other country crossroads. There are farms on two corners, a few road signs, and not much else.
But town board chair Jeff Holm sees more. "This could be downtown Baldwin," he says.
Holm envisions a cluster of "neighborhood oriented" businesses like a dry cleaner, a salon, a drug store, a gas station, and a liquor store. Perhaps there would be a cafe or bar where neighbors could meet. Throw in second-story apartments and a park on nearby Cantlin Lake, and Holm has conjured an old-style downtown. "This is the way towns used to be built," he says. "I'm not picturing suburban-style sprawl."
After a decade of rapid, suburban-style growth in Baldwin, the recession has slowed construction to a crawl. Opinions differ on whether and to what extent growth will resume. But town leaders are taking advantage of the lull, working to determine the shape of development in the future.
Up to now, Baldwin's landowners have been able to do pretty much as they pleased with their properties, so long as development plans fit Sherburne County's zoning and planning ordinances. For the township's longtime residents, escalating land prices turned farms into gold.
Baldwin could continue on this path with little or no effort. But the last thing some residents want is more of the same. "There was no reason or rhyme about where something was located," says Holm. "It was totally unplanned growth." He describes the present landscape as a "hodgepodge" of larger parcels mixed with patches of 2.5 acre yards. Because little thought was given to the efficiency of transportation routes, he says, the township now owns 80 miles of roads that will cost more to repair as they age.
"There was never a question of whether this growth was going to be good for our community," adds Myron Angstman, who has preserved the majority of his 550-acre elk farm on Long Pond. "I fault the county for basically bowing to the pressures put on them by some farmers and some developers who just wanted to cash in. The people who lived nearby had no idea what was about to hit them. The Baldwin thought was, 'My neighbor wants to sell his farm, who am I to stop him?'"
Baldwin relies on Sherburne County for planning services. County planner Jon Sevald acknowledges that during the boom, his office had its hands full just keeping up. "Five years ago, I spent most of my time reviewing plans for subdivisions and home businesses," he says. "We didn't really have time to take a serious look at long-range planning. Now we have that, so it's a time to look at what's worked and what hasn't and try to figure out some solutions that may work better in the future."
Some in Baldwin advocate taking a stronger hand in planning and zoning decisions. "We think we could do better on that," says Holm. He's pushing the town to write its own comprehensive plan for housing, transportation, parks, and industrial and commercial development--even, perhaps, for a new downtown. Good planning costs money, however, and taking on the responsibility can open a township to lawsuits.
On the upside, a comprehensive plan lends muscle when negotiating with developers and landowners, says Randall Arendt, a Rhode Island planner considered the guru of conservation design. "Then the board can tell developers, 'This is what we want. We want you to do an analysis of woodlands and wetlands. We have criteria for open space.'"
A good starting point, says Sharon Pfeifer, community assistance manager for the state Department of Natural Resources Central Region, is to establish a "green infrastructure," where development would be avoided or executed delicately. The DNR has a map that proposes just such a corridor, reaching from the southwest to the northeast corner of the township and connecting the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge with the Rum River. This path takes into account sensitive wetlands and potential future water quality issues. "Where and how they develop can have tremendous impacts on the surface water," says Pfeifer. "That water table is very high and the sand is very permeable. Any contaminants on the service could go through the sand and contaminate the ground water."
Since 1995, more than 100 subdivisions have been built in Baldwin, typically split into uniform 2.5-acre lots and relying on individual, rather than community, wells and septic systems. This existing pattern would be virtually impossible to undo. But the town could fill the remaining buildable land with smaller or bigger lots, creating more or less density where it makes sense.
Areas of increased density would bring extra tax income for road maintenance and other improvements. "If they are going to generate the tax base in the future they will need, they will have to densify," posits Pfeifer. "The scattered growth of the past is inefficient. Our economy allowed that to survive for a good 15 years, but I don't know how effective that would be in the future."
Pfeifer and others recommend cluster housing developments, which are viewed as more efficient than standard ice-cube-tray layouts. Houses are situated close together and the remainder of a parcel is reserved for woods or fields. "It's like a golf course development without the golf course," says Arndt. The builder chooses the open space first and then builds the homes along it, rather than the other way around. "People pay a lot of money for a permanent view," he says, adding that these homes often command a 10 to 15 percent premium. "What they want when moving that far out is not to see a lot of houses out their back door."
This building style can save money because it necessitates fewer miles of roads and fewer septic systems, explains Sherburne County Administrator Brian Bensen. He says that in the future, there will be a "stronger push" for cluster developments in the county. "We were starting to do that on the last few developments before the demand died," he adds. Several examples exist already in Baldwin, including Nordwall Estates, built on a former Christmas tree farm by Princeton's Howard Homes.
These are all pieces of the larger puzzle for Holm. "I grew up on 240 acres, and all the neighbors had 160 at least," he says. "The road was gravel and there was hardly any traffic. Now we have teenagers going by at 80 miles per hour. I had to one day give up and say, 'Okay, this is not going to stay the same.' Let's see how we can best manage what we've got and where we will go in the future."