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Viewpoint: A different way of developing

Every time my husband and I see a new building sprouting up near our home, we get a little excited thinking about the possibilities. We hope for a new restaurant; a local venue for Indian food or sushi would be nice. Inevitably though, when the sign goes up our hopes are dashed. In Wisconsin, where I went to high school and college, we like to joke that there's a bar and a church on every corner. In Savage, where we now live, we're well on our way to ensuring that every corner has its very own ... bank.

For most communities, development is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings new stores and restaurants, a bigger tax base and improvements to local roads and infrastructure. On the other hand, we're often shocked when nearby woods, rolling hills and country lanes are replaced with a flat and barren landscape covered with cookie-cutter houses and stores.

The environment tends to fare poorly when our communities grow. Not only are there fewer patches of woods and wetlands for birds and mammals to inhabit, but also these patches become more and more spread out, making it difficult or impossible for wildlife to travel between habitat fragments. Water resources suffer as well. Studies show that when more than 10 percent of the land within a sub-watershed is covered in impervious surfaces -- pavement, rooftops and highly compacted lawns -- the streams and lakes within that area begin to have more algae, less fish, more erosion and higher levels of contaminants in the water.

There is no perfect solution that accommodates population growth and stimulates the local economy, without exchanging rural character and scenic beauty for dirty water and fragmented habitat. However, the concept of Low Impact Development, which is growing more and more popular in the Twin Cities metro area, shows promise as an almost perfect solution.

The primary goal of Low Impact Development is simple; mimic the natural topography and hydrology of an area as much as possible to avoid degrading natural resources. Low Impact Development is often used in combination with Conservation Development, which strives to preserve large sections of high-quality woods, prairie and wetlands within interconnected corridors, and Smart Growth, which tackles affordable housing, jobs and transportation issues along with natural resources protection.

Recently, the city of Inver Grove Heights worked with local consulting firm Emmons and Olivier Resources to create a development plan for the northwestern portion of their city. Residents in the community were concerned that as the city grew, rolling hills and woods they've grown to love would be flattened to make way for homes and businesses. As an alternative, the consulting firm and the city created an innovative plan for northwestern Inver Grove Heights based on Low Impact Development concepts.

In the plan, any new housing development must preserve at least 20 percent of their area as open-space. The comprehensive plan for the area ensures that these open-space areas will be connected, creating a greenway for wildlife. In addition, the city set a cap on the size of parking lots for new businesses, with the condition that a business can include more parking stalls if they use porous pavement. The maximum size for new parking lots is now three-fourths of the minimum parking lot size the city formerly required.

The real beauty of Inver Grove Heights' Low Impact Development plan can be seen on a smaller scale within the new developments that have begun sprouting up. In contrast with conventional development protocol, where hills are flattened and valleys are filled to create a flat surface to build upon, these new neighborhoods and business parks are keeping the valleys to limit stormwater runoff and preserving natural habitat on steep slopes to prevent erosion. Whenever possible, houses and stores are built around large trees and contractors only clear vegetation and grade the land where buildings and roads will be placed.

The consulting firm has calculated that the plan will cost the city half as much as a conventional development plan because so much less infrastructure will be required to manage stormwater runoff.

As our population in Minnesota and especially the metro area continues to grow, more and more communities will be forced to decide how to develop without losing prized community assets -- open space and aesthetic beauty. The recent slowdown in our economy gives us breathing time to make these important decisions with forethought and consideration. There is no perfect solution, but by using Low Impact Development, Conservation Development and other similar strategies, we can get a lot of what we want, without so much of what we don't.

Angie Hong is an educator with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. She can be reached at (651) 275-1136 extension 35.