In Baldwin Township, cattails amid the housingby Jennifer Vogel, Minnesota Public Radio
Among Minnesota's fastest growing communities in recent decades, Baldwin Township in Sherburne County is a once-rural place that has transformed. Like many places in the ex-urban ring around the Twin Cities, its residents have choices to make: Control growth? Put more housing on smaller lots? Build parks? Focus on fixing roads? Incorporate? Allow annexation to nearby Princeton? Keep taxes low? How residents answer those questions and others may determine whether a place some consider God's country can retain the characteristics that brought thousands to live there. (First of four parts.)
Baldwin Township, Minn. — On the Long Pond Elk Farm south of Princeton, walking trails wind among stands of prairie grass, swamps and groves of birch and oak. Pastures nearby sustain a herd of 30 elk. A split log bench overlooks the pond, where wild rice grows in the summer.
For owner Myron Angstman, it's a time capsule, a piece of Baldwin Township's past being preserved for the future.
"It's a benefit for people who like to look at trees instead of more houses," says Angstman, whose land was settled by his grandparents in 1904. He's put a large portion of the property into a trust to prevent it from being subdivided, hoping to preserve it for his kids and his kids' kids.
There used to be a lot more open farmland and forest in Baldwin, a six-by-six-mile patch between Princeton and Zimmerman. As recently as 1970, only 1,100 people lived in the township, which represents the northern edge of Twin Cities exurbia. Now, some 6,500 people live there, more than in Princeton, which serves as the business, school and church hub for many of the township's residents. Half of the population arrived during the housing boom that began in the early to mid 1990s.
Development came so quickly and furiously that in some ways residents were unprepared for the transformation. Now, Baldwin's leaders are playing catch-up, working to lay a series of choices before the populace, including whether the town should become an independent city or, perhaps, part of Princeton; whether it should take a stronger hand in managing future development; and how best to maintain the township's radically expanded infrastructure. "We're on the threshold of a whole new story for Baldwin Township," says board vice-chair, Jay Swanson. "And what is that going to bring? It's going to bring whatever we want it to."
Ask the town's newcomers and they'll say they came, often from the city or suburbs, in search of low taxes, inexpensive dream homes and a quiet, rural life. Improved highways and cheap gas made driving to work in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or St. Cloud possible. As many as two-thirds of Baldwin's workers commute each weekday.
In fact, these arrivals brought a bit of the city with them, says Angstman. "Fifty houses go up in a subdivision and all of the sudden they have exactly what they left. The two hundred acres that used to be a natural environment is now a lawn."
Sherburne County has been one of Minnesota's fastest growing counties. County planner Jon Sevald estimates that by 2030, Baldwin's population will again double, to almost 14,000 people. That would increase density from 183 people per square mile to nearly 400. Given the economic downturn and fundamental changes in the mortgage industry, the county's figure may be optimistic -- or pessimistic, depending on your view. Only six houses were built in Baldwin in 2009, compared to 168 in 2001, at the height of the boom.
Yet almost nobody thinks the town will stay as it is.
"We won't see development to the extent we did," says Dylan Howard, who runs Howard Homes in Princeton, the company his father, Dan, founded in 1978. "But in a couple of years, it will pick up." By Howard's lights, that's not a bad thing. It's "brought tax base," he says. "It's brought new life to the community. Sometimes growth isn't the greatest, but it sure is better than going backwards."
"'Developer' to us used to be kind of a dirty word," Howard continues. "It wasn't exactly what any of us thought we'd ever aspire to be. But dad thought, someone is going to do it, let's do it right." Father and son have planned or built close to a dozen local developments, totaling some 240 houses.
This feeling that "someone is going to do it" stems not just from Baldwin's proximity to the Twin Cities, but also from its very soil, which is sandy and poor for crops. "The land is terrible for farming," says Howard, "but it grows good houses."
While that may be true, Jeff Holm, a lifelong Baldwin resident and chair of the town board, characterizes what's happened as "totally unplanned growth." He counts the slowdown as a chance to take a breath, re-evaluate. "We were a mom and pop operation," he says. "Now we're a bedroom community. We can't sit on our hands."
Baldwin contains a far-flung patchwork of subdivisions, some beautifully-landscaped enclaves, some sparse, bare-bones affairs. There are nearly 80 miles of township road, much of it newly constructed and serving few homes. Little consideration was given to how the developments would fit together, Holm says, or to the location of green space and other amenities that might help create a sense of community.
Consequently, the township is grappling with a constellation of daunting issues. It has to figure out how to pay for the maintenance of all those roads. That's a sticky matter, given a populace that values low taxes. And on a more fundamental level, the town is weighing whether it has, in fact, outgrown its direct-democracy township form of government. Baldwin is the third largest township in the state; the average size is 525 people.
Sorting out these matters has wrought raucous, sometimes contentious, debate. "People want to keep the less-is-more, small government of township," says Holm. "But there are a lot of issues and problems that townships aren't very well organized to take care of. We're organized to take care of roads and ditches."
As for Angstman, he feels compelled to do what he can on his own. "Development changes things and it changes them permanently." Another wave of growth like the last one and he fears his elk farm will become an island in suburbia. "In that scenario," he says, "I'm Central Park."
Next week: Without a downtown or a Main Street coffee shop, Baldwin Township tries to define what exactly it is.