Alarmed by plans for new development in their Woodbury neighborhood, residents near East Ridge High School built an ad-hoc coalition as they fought to stop a new apartment building and then new townhomes from landing in a 19-acre parcel nearby.
They ultimately lost when the city approved the 111-townhome Copper Ridge 9th project, but the experience left some neighbors with lasting concerns about traffic, school capacity, the city's water supply and needed infrastructure, all of which, they say, is overstressed as Woodbury tears up sod for new homes.
"They continue to approve developments without the infrastructure there," said Woodbury resident Dave Deer. He and his neighbors plan to continue to press city leaders on future development projects.
Their concerns have caught a sympathetic ear from City Council Member Kim Wilson, who was the lone voice on the council this month declining to approve a routine step for one of the latest housing projects to land in Woodbury, the 125-acre Westwind Residential Development.
"I'm concerned that we are growing fast and furious with not enough infrastructure in place," she said.
It's undeniable that Woodbury has been on a development tear, with a record year of building permits in 2022. So many people have moved to Woodbury in the past few years that the suburb will hit its expected 2040 population of 87,800 more than a decade early.
It's been a remarkable run over the past few years, with taxable market value rising from $6 billion in 2013 to some $13.5 billion today. A city map showing active developments lists 11 commercial projects and 21 residential ones. Woodbury's future, as outlined in the city's comprehensive plan, calls for nearly 7,000 more housing units by 2040.
Mayor Anne Burt said housing cycles play a part in the city's growth, and she expects things to slow down.
"… We do anticipate that the rate of growth will decrease beginning in 2023. This is consistent to past growth cycles that the city has experienced," she said in an email.
The school district is also anticipating a bit of a slowdown, according to executive director of finance and operations Dan Pyan. A new set of student population projections are expected at next month's school board meeting, and early indications are that the red-hot housing market may have peaked in 2021, he said.
The rush of new housing triggered a testy response from neighbors in the Copper Ridge neighborhood last year when they learned a 19-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Pioneer Drive and Bailey Lake Road would get bulldozed for a 77-unit, three-story apartment building and 34 rental townhomes on the site.
Resident Rachel Nelson helped spread a petition in Woodbury pushing back against the project and more than 600 people signed. Nelson made her case before the City Council twice in 2022.
The developer relented and abandoned the plans. But any neighborhood relief was short-lived. Developers were back before the city's planning commission in November with a new plan for 111 townhomes on the site.
The new development feels like a "bait and switch," said Nelson, who thought the vacant land near her house was slated for more single-family homes. "They're changing the characteristics of the neighborhood, bringing in a lot more traffic versus what should be in that neighborhood."
The City Council said it was bound by a 2017 decision approving a planned unit development for the area.
The city's approval had crossed the red line for some residents, sparking concern about the pace of infrastructure development and, in particular, crowded schools.
Resident Josh Pescini wrote a letter to the City Council saying its decision will bring a cascade of changes to Woodbury schools causing boundaries to be redrawn. Students will have to move to new schools, he said, moves that will be disruptive to the kids' emotional well-being and academic performance.
For now, whether there's room for more students depends on a student's age: the seven elementary schools and two middle schools in Woodbury run by South Washington County Schools are below capacity and can take at least a few more students, according to district numbers.
On the other hand, both East Ridge High School and Woodbury High School are over capacity. East Ridge alone has an enrollment of 2,017 but was designed for 1,712.
The Westwind Residential Development was just announced this fall, and it promises to bring another 251 single-family homes, 144 townhouse units, and 51 villa lots to a 130-acre parcel near Dale Road and Pioneer Drive. Deer said he expects the council to approve it in the weeks ahead, but he'll attend the city's meetings and ask questions, just in case.
The council's decision on Copper Ridge 9th left Woodbury resident Ashley Lenertz feeling like the fight to slow development in Woodbury needs to continue.
The use of density transfers at Copper Ridge 9th feels like "a bait and switch," she said.
Density transfers are a planning practice that allows a developer to pack more units into one area if they promise to leave other areas open. Woodbury has used them to create parks and needed green space, City Planner Eric Searles said. He pointed to the recent preservation of an 18-acre oak savanna in the Urban Village project as an example.
But homeowners like Lenertz see townhomes or apartments going into an area they thought was slated for single-family homes. The city "should have been more clear" about how it was going to rezone the property, she said.
"There's not enough infrastructure in the area in general," Lenertz said. "We definitely don't have enough parks. Not only that, the school system: it's completely overloaded at East Ridge. Where are these kids going to go?"