With so many new Baldwin Township residents, building a community has been slowby Jennifer Vogel, Minnesota Public Radio
Baldwin Township, Minn. — There is no downtown Baldwin Township. There is no Main Street where people gather for coffee or pizza. Most of the town's thirty-plus businesses huddle against the border of Princeton. And if you ask those who live in the six-by-six mile square of formerly rural countryside where they're from, the answer is likely to be "Princeton," or maybe "Zimmerman."
"Baldwin almost doesn't exist in my mind," says Rod Langevin, who moved six years ago from Wayzata to a home near County Road 39. That some in the township seek a stronger sense of community comes as a surprise to him. "The only time I think of Baldwin is when I get my tax statement."
That's a common sentiment among the town's 6,500 residents, nearly half of whom arrived during the past fifteen years as part of the housing boom. "It's stuck between two worlds," Langevin continues. "It's not the country anymore, but it's not the suburbs really either. It's a bit of a contradiction."
As the township comes to grips with the consequences of rapid growth--its hopscotch of housing developments, increased road maintenance, the matter of whether to become a city or be annexed by Princeton--residents also are confronting a less tangible question: What exactly is the town's identity?
Baldwin, it seems, has been more a location than a place. And if that remains the case, some worry that the township will be ill equipped to handle an increasingly complex future.
Fewer than 10 percent of registered voters typically cast ballots in township elections. "It's hard to use the word 'community' when you have very few people who participate," says Jeff Holm, a lifetime Baldwin resident and chair of the town board. He wants residents to speak up on issues facing the town, such as how best to manage the next wave of development, if it comes. That led Holm, on behalf of Baldwin, to apply for a Healthy Communities Partnership grant from the Initiative Foundation. "We have to figure out what we are fighting for," Holm says.
The difficulty is rooted in Baldwin's very populace, many of whom moved from the city or suburbs looking for rural tranquility and minimal governmental influence in their lives. In other words, many came to be left alone.
The promise of a spacious, frontier life within commuting distance of the Twin Cities appeals to a wide range of people. Besides the farmers and landowners who have lived here for generations, Baldwin is home to young families, retirees, snowmobile enthusiasts, nature-seekers, and would-be ranchers who put up pole barns and maybe buy a horse or two. Holm calls these amalgams of suburban and rural life, "Two-and-a-half-acre hobby farms."
Yet, if enough people move north seeking elbow room, those elbows start to poke each other. Suddenly, rather than listening to the faint sound of a barking dog in the distance, many residents now endure the howling pup in the next yard. As the population has grown, so has the number of noise and nuisance complaints filed with the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office, which patrols the area. Snowmobile, ATV and dog complaints doubled between 1994 and 2009. Yet when residents were asked, as part of a 2005 survey, what they would like to change about Baldwin, they responded with a collective yawn. More than 3,300 surveys were distributed, yielding a mere 3 percent return. One of the 96 respondents did request "a limit of 2 dogs per household," but that was hardly the kind of feedback on which to base a policy.
Jess Hall, who moved to Baldwin from Anoka in 1972 and served on the town board for 27 years, says the township is not so much a community as a collection of strangers. "You'd like to think that more people would participate," he says. "But they just want their little home on their two and a half acres. And they want to be able to do what they want on their two-and-a-half also." New residents are especially reluctant to voice opinions, adds David Patten, a landscape architect who chairs Baldwin's parks committee. "It's like when you get a new job," he says. "You don't want to rock the boat too much. You want to fit in."
At least some citizens have traditionally hashed things over at Baldwin's annual meeting, where the budget is settled. In a township, each citizen has a direct vote and decisions are made in "yea" or "nay" fashion. These gatherings have become famously rambunctious in recent years, sometimes devolving into yelling matches between people who want to spend money on amenities or services and those who insist that taxes be kept low.
"Most of the time when people show up to a meeting or event it's because they are mad about something." says Patten. "Until a couple of years ago, I wouldn't miss a supervisors' meeting. It was better than anything on TV, there was so much drama."
This cantankerousness was too much for Sue Hix, who moved to Baldwin in 1994 and lives in what she terms "a cabin and house in one" on Long Pond. Formerly a training and communications manager, Hix served as secretary of the parks committee for five years, until she walked away five years ago. "People here get along fine as long as they don't start talking taxes, politics, or religion," she says.
Running a township, however, usually involves two of the three, and sometimes the whole troika. "There were a couple of people on the committee who would let the accusations fly," Hix recalls, theorizing that the arch mode of discourse that's permeated the nation's political culture has found purchase in Baldwin. "This is a microcosm of the macro."
Finally, Hix threw up her hands. "I said, 'I can't take it anymore.' It was so wonderful to be out of there." Time and effort she once devoted to township affairs now goes toward work on behalf of the nearby Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.
At least as far as the town board goes, the last couple of years have brought a wholesale turnover in elected officials that some hope will change the tone of local government. And perhaps that, in turn, will draw in more of Baldwin's vast disengaged populace--newcomers who don't read the same newspapers and who might not even know they live in Baldwin.
Hix thinks that's possible. "To quote Cicero," she says, "'While there's life, there's hope.'"