Housing bust exposes the cost of unplanned growth

"Totally unplanned growth"
Baldwin Township's population has sextupled in the last 40 years, with subdivisons springing out of farm fields. Town Board Chair Jeff Holm describes the growth as "totally unplanned."
MPR Photo/Chris Welsch

Baldwin Township used to be mostly farmland. But like much of Sherburne County, it experienced a population explosion in recent decades. It went from 1,100 people in 1970 to around 6,500 today.

"We wanted to raise our kids in the country with what we thought was not so much pressure to conform to what's hip and what's current -- to give our kids a better childhood," resident Sue Wondra said.

That yearning for the country -- along with the allure of cheap land -- is what made Baldwin boom, and there is a ring of places just like it surrounding the Twin Cities. Drive about 50 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul in any direction and you'll hit one.

Scott, Wright, Sherburne and Carver were among the 100 fastest growing counties in the United States over the last decade.

Geographers call them "the exurbs." These are bedroom communities; people here generally commute to the city for work.

Baldwin Township has only 30 or so businesses, but it has more than 2,000 houses.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Driving past one of Baldwin's many snaking cul de sacs, Town Board Chair Jeff Holm describes the growth as "totally unplanned." Wherever there was a farmer ready to sell his land, that's where the housing development went.

"Their location has nothing to do with proximity to transportation routes," Holm said. "It's kind of a hodge podge."

Baldwin Township roads
The exurban building boom left Baldwin Township with 80 miles of paved road. Now that the boom has stopped, town leaders are discovering how hard it is to maintain all that road.
Courtesy of Sherburne County

When development is spread out, it takes many more miles of road to connect the houses than when you pack properties close together.

Today, Baldwin has 80 miles of paved road, and maintaining it all is a challenge. The sheer volume is one problem. To make matters worse, some of the roads were poorly engineered.

In many places there are tree stumps buried below them. The stumps were cheap fill 20 years ago, but now they are rotting, destabilizing the asphalt above. A recent study found more than 13 miles of road in Baldwin were in major need of repair.

The worst is 136th St., which is cracked, bumpy and two feet narrower than current road standards dictate. It also has virtually no shoulder, and in places, the edge of the road drops off sharply into an 8-foot-deep drainage ditch.

Mark Miller discovered that the hard way in 2007. He was working as a commercial driver, delivering shingles for a construction company.

In the ditch
Mark Miller's roofing truck slid into the 8-foot-deep drainage ditch that runs along 136th St. in 2007. "I tried to pull myself out of it. It was no good," Miller said.
Courtesy of Baldwin Township

"The right front tire on the truck I was driving dropped off the edge of the road," Miller said. "I tried to pull myself out of it. It was no good. The truck started going on its side, and all I could see was dirt and grass and weeds hitting the windshield. DOT said if I wasn't wearing my seat belt, I would not have lived through that."

Miller escaped from the crash with just a scratch on his hand. There were no citations or fines, but just having the accident on his driving record makes it hard for Miller to find work.

Many people who live on 136th St. agree it's a bad road -- dangerous, even. But they are also nearly unanimous in their feeling that they don't want to see the road fixed, if it would mean a tax increase.

"I'm opposed to paying any more taxes," said Gary Butz, who lives just up the road from where Miller went in the ditch. "It just went from $1,400 to over $1,700 a year, and for what?"

People in Baldwin like their taxes low. This is Republican Michele Bachmann's congressional district, the most conservative one in the state.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller discovered Baldwin Township's worst road the hard way in 2007 when his roofing truck slid into the ditch that runs along 136th St.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Baldwin already reduced its road and bridge budget for this year, and at a recent meeting the town board voted to recommend another decrease for next year.

"At some point, the township has to start recognizing the fact that we've got about $40 million tied up in our roads and we have to start protecting them," said Terry Carlile, who heads up Baldwin's road maintenance department. "We can't just let them go."

Carlile is pushing the township to make a more aggressive road repair plan, but the costs are daunting. Rebuilding 136th alone could run as high as $2 million -- more than 10 times what Baldwin budgeted for road repairs last year.

"People do not pay, generally -- in areas like Baldwin Township -- the amount of costs in terms of taxes that it would take to maintain the road system they have constructed," planning consultant Charles Marohn said. "They're not even close."

Marohn works with exurban communities around Minnesota and he says they are all facing the same problem: Too much road with too few houses to pay for the upkeep.

What are the options for Baldwin and places like it?

136th St.
Planning experts say the "rural sprawl" exurban areas experienced in recent decades led to too many miles of road with too few houses to pay for the upkeep. A recent survey found 13 miles of road in Sherburne County's Baldwin Township were in major need of repair. The worst is 136th St.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"To be successful and to be prosperous in the long term, you need to have a plan," said University of Minnesota professor Myron Orfield, who teaches classes on land use planning and smart growth. "How did Rockefeller get rich? He planned for it."

Orfield has spent years studying the Twin Cities, the suburbs and the regions beyond. He says if Baldwin doesn't plan for denser, more orderly development in the future, it will have big problems on its hands.

"They're going to have houses and kids, and houses and kids, and houses and kids," Orfield said. "But they're never going to have the commercial and industrial tax base they need to really support their schools, or to build their sewer systems, or to build the roads they need to handle the traffic."

When Baldwin's population was growing, it wasn't such a problem. The town and county budgets expanded every year. But now, new home construction has all but stopped. Baldwin saw 168 new houses built in 2001. Last year, it saw six.

"Five years ago, I spent most of my time reviewing plans for subdivisions and for home businesses," Sherburne County Planner Jon Sevald said. "We didn't really have time to take a serious look at long-range planning. Now we have that. So it's a time for us to sit back and look at what's worked or what hasn't in the past, and figure out some solutions that might work better in the future."

One of Sherburne County's solutions is to encourage denser development. That carries several advantages, including less new road to maintain. But just as the county started to approve its first few developments under its new subdivision ordinance, the demand for new construction died.

County Administrator Brian Bensen isn't sure when building will pick up again.

"If I knew that I'd be in a different job, speculating on land," Bensen said. "I'd say we have at least a couple years."

State and county projections show Baldwin's population doubling to around 13,000 by the year 2030, but that might not be realistic.

Baldwin's growth was fueled by young families, and America's population is aging. State Demographer Tom Gillaspy points out as people age they get less interested in elbow room. They want other things.

"Convenience to shopping, convenience to friends, accessibility -- these will become bigger issues as we go forward into the future," Gillaspy said. "The nature of the housing market is changing and will continue to change over the long run."

If Gillaspy is right, then Baldwin Township and the rest of the exurbs could face a different set of challenges; not how to plan for the next wave of growth, but how to deal with problems posed by the last one.