05/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Village Green: "I watched the growth - it's become 'Paradise Lost' for me"

Today’s title comes from Jeff Holm, chair of the Board of Supervisors for Baldwin Township, Minnesota.  Baldwin is a rural community struggling with its identity in the face of change.  Holm, who grew up in the unincorporated township of around 6,500 residents, was participating in a discussion about Baldwin’s future hosted by Minnesota Public Radio.

  Baldwin, 40 mi N of the Twin Cities (image by Google Earth, labels by me)

As you can see in the first satellite image, Baldwin is north of the Twin Cities, about 40 miles from Minneapolis and in between the small towns of Princeton and Zimmerman. Its story is like that of many rural and once-rural places in America:  First, a small community is populated with independent souls (very independent: even though Baldwin’s average household income is somewhat above the state average, only ten percent of eligible residents vote) who are drawn to the easy-going, peaceful lifestyle.  In Baldwin, most have worked service jobs, although there are also some small farms.  But, over time, others become attracted to the same lifestyle.  And, if the town is located within driving distance of a job center, some of the newcomers are commuters, reaping the rewards of a city or suburban job on weekdays while coming home in the evenings and on the weekends to a more bucolic environment.

This, essentially, was the promise of the great suburban migration of the 1950s and 1960s.  As readers of this blog know, that migration exacted an environmental, economic, and social price. 

  Baldwin, MN (by: Curtis Gilbert)  Baldwin, MN (by: Curtis Gilbert) 

But what we now also know is that, unless managed very carefully, the pattern becomes a self-defeating cycle that fails even to deliver on the basic promise:  the more people come, the less the community holds the appeal that attracted them.  In the second satellite image, you can see the locations of some of the relatively new, suburban-style development now sprinkled around Baldwin.  The township’s population has doubled as a result of the more than 100 subdivisions built in Baldwin since 1990.  

  Baldwin, with new subdivisions (image by Google Earth, markings by me) 

Today Baldwin is experiencing a different kind of change, as new development has essentially come to a halt with the recession.  More than 200 homes have been foreclosed in the last three years.  But forecasters and Baldwin’s residents expect the growth to resume at some point. 

And so, for the very first time, the community is thinking about planning for growth.  Should the township incorporate as a city?  Should it be annexed into nearby Princeton?  (It is clear from the recording of the town meeting, below, that “becoming Princeton” is not a popular option with many residents.)  Should it remain an unincorporated township? 

  Baldwin, MN (by: Curtis Gilbert)  Baldwin, MN (by: Curtis Gilbert) 

What should happen with services and taxes?  What are the residents willing to pay for?  How will the streets and roads built with new development be maintained over time?  Should house numbers be required in front of each home?  What provisions should be made for an aging population?  Is it time for a comprehensive plan?  Is attracting new development essentially a “Ponzi scheme” that requires never-ending additional development to pay for the cost of each new increment?  Is the development coming anyway?

For now, Baldwin is still the kind of place that has a bounty on gophers (“$2.00 per pair of feet.  The pairs of feet should be mounted to a cardboard with your name and address listed”).  But only barely.  The population is expected to double again in the next two decades.  Perhaps it will be helpful to planning that the township recently received a grant from the Initiative Foundation’s Healthy Communities Partnership to assist with citizen engagement. 

I first read about Baldwin and its issues on the Strong Towns Blog, whose Chuck Marohn was one of the panelists at the growth forum.  Marohn posted a terrific, fascinating video about Baldwin and its challenges that “in a very real, yet charming and respectful way . . . captures many of the value clashes” confronting the township and other communities like it across the American landscape.  I highly recommend the video, and I also recommend the longer audio clip just below the video, which contains the discussion at the very well-moderated town meeting.  In both, you will see and hear Baldwin's residents voice their concerns, which are not always what you might expect.  Enjoy and learn:


  Audio recording of MPR News' Ground Level forum on the future of Baldwin Township (55 min.) 

Photos by Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio News (excellent full, narrated slideshow here.)

Originally posted here. Kaid Benfield writes occasional Village Green commentary for Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.