ST. CLOUD (AP) -- For some Twin Cities workers, going home to the suburbs means making the hour or so drive northwest to this city and surrounding area.
Many prefer to live in quieter communities with lower crime rates and a more rural setting.
Some people say it is St. Cloud's destiny to become another suburb of Minneapolis and St. Paul, if not in the next two decades, then certainly in the next half-century. But that's what many longtime residents fear: their once-small town could join a continuous sprawl of development.
Some experts say that if St. Cloud avoids making the same mistakes as the Twin Cities, it can hold onto its individual identity and preserve what little natural land remains.
Much depends on what the cities and counties between the two metro areas choose to do. If government leaders take steps to plan for orderly growth and control land use in rural areas, there is still hope.
''I don't think enough is being done,'' said Rep. Joe Opatz, DFL-St. Cloud, who has led a charge for more regional planning in the St. Cloud area. If uninhibited growth continues for the next several decades, there will be no open space left, Opatz said. ''It seems to me we then hasten the time when St. Cloud is just a part of one undifferentiated, urbanized metro area,'' he said.
Along U.S. Highway 10 and Interstate Highway 94, new houses and businesses have sprouted. Once-sleepy towns like St. Michael and Becker are some of the fastest-growing cities in the state.
''A lot of people don't quite understand the amount of development that's really happening,'' said developer Craig Rapp, former community development director for the Metropolitan Council. ''The northwest direction from the Twin Cities is the area that's growing the fastest.''
While the Metropolitan Council was trying to contain metro area growth in the 1980s with a seven-county growth boundary, Twin Cities residents were leapfrogging out to places like Elk River and Big Lake to take advantage of land availability and low prices, said John Shardlow, planning consultant with Dahlgren, Shardlow and Uban of Minneapolis.
''The truth of the matter is this state has never had the political will to control growth and development,'' Shardlow said.
The Met Council's biggest failure was underestimating the amount of land the Twin Cities would need to grow, he said.
Planners thought that by keeping the size of the metro area small, they would encourage development within the core city. But without strict controls outside of that line, people simply moved where land was affordable, Shardlow said. Outside the metro area, they could buy a larger house on a sizable wooded lot.
''In general, Minnesota has a prairie mentality,'' Rapp said. ''We've gotten progressively larger in our lot choices and our lot sizes.''
St. Cloud's neighbor cities of Sartell, St. Joseph and Sauk Rapids also have had major growth spurts in recent years.
So what's wrong with urban sprawl? It can hurt the economy, the environment and the quality of life, critics say.
In the case of the Twin Cities, as residents moved outward, so did the region's job growth and tax base. The inner core cities experienced urban decay, a loss of economic base and increased problems like crime and poverty.
New development gobbled up land, including farmland, forests, wetlands and natural areas, said Ginny Yingling, state director of the Sierra Club.
''Sprawl is the No. 1 cause of habitat loss in our country right now,'' Yingling said. And as residents move farther from their jobs, they drive longer distances, causing more air pollution, she said.
Many also worry that too much sprawl between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities would cause St. Cloud to lose its sense of community.
''There's a huge difference between Cottage Grove and Stearns County,'' Shardlow said. ''Those are not people who are going to feel like they're part of the same community.''
Some point to the St. Cloud Area Joint Planning District's regional planning effort as one of the best hopes for controlling future growth. The undertaking was the result of a 1997 bill sponsored by Opatz, who told local leaders that if they didn't take action to plan for the future, the state probably would.
One thing experts agree on is that growth along the corridor between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities is inevitable. The six counties that encompass the corridor, including Stearns, Benton, Sherburne, Anoka, Wright and Hennepin, are projected to increase in population by 10 percent in the next 25 years.
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