Not all development patterns have the same price tag

And for my last Council meeting, the business park is on the agenda for discussion…so here’s one more attempt to ask questions about the cost and scope of this project.

The background as we know it: 530 acres annexed west of the hospital to be master-planned and developed as a business and residential development.  Required improvements include roads (to TH 19, North Avenue, Decker Avenue, 320th Street, “Cedar” Ave. and new interior roadways), sewer (including lift station), water (including elevated storage tank) which “should not be assessed to business park property, increasing the cost of development.”  Phase I is estimated at about $14 million in improvements; Phases II-IV would add another $15 million. The breakdown of the development expected includes not just the commercial/industrial development we hear about most, but a substantial amount of housing and retail.

That cost of development issue should make everyone pause…

Of course, it would raise the cost of development to completely prohibitive levels if the costs were assessed to the property.  But, if the costs are not assessed to the property, that burden will fall to the City taxpayers (and state and perhaps federal taxpayers depending on the package of aid that’s cobbled together).  Further subsidies to attract business like tax abatement, TIF, etc. will further increase taxpayers’ costs and decrease the tax benefits.

1. My general question: how can we grow the tax base and add jobs without massive subsidies (which is what those infrastructure improvements would be) which would effectively shrink tax revenue to pay off the improvements.

2. My more specific question: how can the Council, staff, business community and taxpayers learn how much it is likely to cost them (and what assumptions about the rate of growth and the economy underlie those projections) and will that cost ever be recouped through tax revenue.

3. I also have question the wisdom of master planning an area which will take decades to build out.  My experience on the planning commission with residential development was that the master plan would be drafted, but within just a few years changes would be requested to adjust densities, change housing styles, subtract roads, change stormwater management, etc.  Is it likely that the lot layout, use designations, environmental/landscaping/natural features, etc. in the business park will help development or will the plan constrain business development over time?

My bottom line: Northfield has not evaluated the cost of this project for taxpayers over the long term and has not explored meaningful alternatives to reduce cost.  Indeed, the entire process has been conducted backwards with questions about feasibility, cost, location, etc. happening after the plan has been drawn without considering that not all development locations and patterns come with the same pricetag.

I am advocating for 2 things:

  • maximizing use of current infrastructure before building new (because we’ve already paid for it and are maintaining it). Extending infrastructure in the hope of development is a gamble with tax money I am not willing to take.
  • building in patterns which support density (to put more taxpayers per acre or per foot of pipe to support the infrastructure), but not for a particular look and feel.

A little digest of other things I’ve written and where I get my information:

From this blog (with links to many places):

From other places:





8 thoughts on “Not all development patterns have the same price tag

  1. I think you do a good job showing that this would be a dubious investment for the city, without even having to ask the ethical question of whether it makes sense to lay out the red carpet for business to pave over ag land when there’s ample infill space available — or whether it makes sense in the general planning of a city to have one tiny arm reach out, complete with city services, into the countryside.

    I am curious about your point #3, though. What exactly is the alternative to master planning an area? It seems that if anything, these projects suffer from a lack of planning (integration with the rest of the city) than from too much of it.

    • Thanks, Sean – There are lots of other questions to ask questions about this development including the ones you raised, but I tried to focus on how this project is a bad business deal for the city.

      As for #3, the master planning to integrate the business park into the city wasn’t what I was thinking about. Rather, I think about the internal logic of the plan which looks nice on paper, but over 10, 20, 50 years may well be rethought.

      But I have been thinking about planning to connect projects to the rest of the city in a broader context. I was looking at the map of Northfield and noting that many of our residential areas were planned with the same kind of internal logic but little regard for the connections to neighboring neighborhoods, downtown, schools, hospital (now there was a project which didn’t plan connections), north and south Highway 3, etc.

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