Candidates support moving up Langdon development
They deferentially sparred on taxes and a possible community center, but Cottage Grove's five City Council candidates were unanimous on one thing during Wednesday night's roundtable debate held by the Bulletin.
The handful of hopefuls vying for two city council seats -- Tom Dippel, Derrick Lehrke, Justin Olsen, Jen Peterson and Chris Reese -- all agreed that the current council missed the boat this summer when it voted not to move up the Langdon area's timetable for development to allow immediate commercial development when asked how they would have voted on the issue.
The move would have extended city water to the semi-rural south Cottage Grove neighborhood -- an area where its residents currently receive bottled water shipments because of well water contaminated with 3M-manufactured chemicals -- and opened the door to a Minneapolis developer's proposal to plant a Gold's Gym fitness center on the highly visible Majestic Ballroom site.
Reese chairs the city's Planning Commission and voted in favor of amending Cottage Grove's comprehensive plan to move the Majestic site up from a Stage 3 development zone -- an area intended to be developed a decade or more down the road -- to Stage 1, which would allow immediate development to occur. The Planning Commission and Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee -- of which Olsen and Peterson are members -- both recommended the City Council approve the change.
"I'm befuddled," Reese said at last week's roundtable, "because the Planning Commission and the comprehensive plan task force both were in favor of this. The only discussion was should it just be the Majestic or should it be the entire (Langdon) area. And for the council to say we should comprehensive plan it anyway and then let it sit for 15 years, to me, is irresponsible.
"To me, if we're going to master plan it then why don't we work with a developer right now."
Each candidate's full response is available on the Bulletin's Web site, www.swcbulletin.com, as is audio of the complete 45-minute debate.
The unanimity among council members means that whoever is chosen as mayor could be the deciding vote on this issue if it is again brought before the council.
Mayoral candidate Myron Bailey was the lone council member to vote in favor of amending the city's 2030 comprehensive plan update to include the Majestic in immediate development. His opponent, Fred Luden, remains resolutely against developing the Majestic site now, before the entire Langdon area is master planned as the council declared its intentions to early this year.
In a Bulletin Viewpoint article published in August, Luden, along with current mayor Sandy Shiely and council members Pat Rice and Mark Grossklaus, wrote the Langdon area needs to be master planned to address development and environmental issues before the city can commit to what officials estimated would be an $800,000 extension of city water to the Majestic site.
Luden also recently expressed his doubts in the proposal from Anxon, Inc., saying the Minneapolis developer showed no interest in any other site along West Point Douglas Road, even plots already serviced by city water and sewer.
But some council candidates during last week's debate said the city's cautious approach to the Gold's Gym proposal was another example of Cottage Grove allowing development opportunities to pass it by.
Cottage Grove "should have made it as easy and expedited (as possible) for Gold's Gym to come in," candidate Dippel said at Wednesday's roundtable. "And it's an example of how Cottage Grove hasn't made it easy for businesses to come in and (has) stunted the growth of the city, and stunted the growth of the tax base and been too indecisive and been too nit-picky about those sorts of things."
Times are tight and Cottage Grove's yearly budget is sure to be tough on everyone, the five city council candidates conceded last week. But the candidates' theories on how to deal with it varied, from "hold the line" to the belief that city staff may have to be cut.
Derrick Lehrke said after discussions with city administrator Ryan Schroeder, he doesn't see much "fat to be cut" from the 2009 budget. But with a plummeting economy and still slow housing market, Lehrke said the city needs to make sure "we're not adding to the burden."
"The average person's pocketbook is pinched right now," Lehrke said, "and I don't know that we can ask or demand from them that we need more money."
Chris Reese and Justin Olsen both noted that dollars from expiring tax increment financing districts, areas that city leaders chose not to tax at full value for a time in order to encourage development or redevelopment, will begin appearing in the 2010 budget and will help the city continue work on current projects.
Olsen said he believes the "city has done a nice job over the last 10 years of controlling their tax rates on citizens," and added he doesn't think the city will need to raise taxes.
Jen Peterson wasn't so sure.
"Realistically, you know, I'm paying more for gas, the city's paying more for gas," she said. "I'm paying more to heat my house and the city's got to pay more to heat the buildings. All the things that I'm paying for that have gone up (in price) I know the city's paying for.
"So I think it's unrealistic to think taxes aren't going to go up. And I would certainly do everything in my power to keep that as miniscule an amount as possible."
Acknowledging Cottage Grove's budget is tight but saying now isn't the time to hike taxes, Tom Dippel said the city may need to consider cutting staff, a painful step Woodbury announced last month it would be forced to take.
There is "a possibility we may even need to cut personnel," he said. "I know that's not something people want to hear, but I'm just going to say it like it is."
To hear more of last week's city council roundtable debate, go to the Bulletin's Web site at www.swcbulletin.com.
Jon Avise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.