Lake Elmo water access issues could derail plans for new elementary school

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Stillwater Area School District officials say they may need to look for a new site for a new Lake Elmo Elementary School because of issues regarding access to city water.

The Lake Elmo City Council met Tuesday night to review an initial sketch plan of the project, and some council members raised concerns about hooking up city water to the 47-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Lake Elmo Avenue and 10th Street North — kitty-corner to Cimarron Park, a mobile-home community in Lake Elmo.

District officials are now working with the seller of the land to extend the purchase agreement, which was set to expire on Nov. 28, for three months, to give district officials time “to collaborate with our community partners to come up with a solution that best meets the needs of our students and community members,” Superintendent Mike Funk said.

An undated courtesy photo, circa December 2021, of Lake Elmo Elementary School in Lake Elmo. (Courtesy of Stillwater Area Public Schools)

The district’s $175 million bond referendum, which will be used to fund a new school to replace Lake Elmo Elementary School, passed with 57 percent support. The school was built in 1920.

District officials over the summer entered into a $4.5 million purchase agreement for the land at Lake Elmo Avenue and 10th Street North contingent on the passage of the referendum; the undeveloped, wooded land is owned by Tom Kindler.

Lake Elmo, the fastest-growing city in Minnesota, is dealing with a multitude of water issues, including PFAS contamination and restrictions on pumping as a result of a court order regarding the water levels of White Bear Lake.

“We’ve been struggling with our water issues for a long time now,” said City Administrator Kristina Handt said. “I think that’s really important that people understand that Lake Elmo has had water issues for quite some time that we’ve been struggling with because of the White Bear Lake court ruling.”

The city enacted a moratorium on development in 2022 after the city’s request to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for an amendment to its water appropriations permit was denied in May 2021. City officials applied for the amendment to increase the city’s allowed water usage due to rapid growth — 1,400 new houses, 300 new apartment units and numerous businesses — over a five-year period, Handt said.

But DNR officials, citing the White Bear Lake court order, denied the city’s request.

That order, issued in 2017 by Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan following a trial, effectively prohibits the DNR from issuing new or expanded groundwater pumping permits within five miles of the lake. The ruling put restrictions on communities, including Lake Elmo, that use water from the same aquifer that feeds the lake. Special legislation passed earlier this year directed the DNR to provide Lake Elmo with enough water to help it meet its needs.

“We thought the legislation would help, but it’s not going to result in an appropriation that will provide for the city to continue growth and not be in violation of our permits,” Handt said. “So the City Council is now taking a closer look at developments.”

The proposed new school site is not the first proposal to come under scrutiny, she said. The council last week did not approve a proposed Bridgewater Bank and commercial development at Manning Avenue and Stillwater Boulevard, she said.

“The building that people see going on is from developments that were approved a year ago or more,” she said. “There was a subdivision that was a day care and townhomes that got held up initially, but we thought the legislation was going to help, so we let it go through, but we haven’t approved any other developments.”

City officials also have instituted a two-day-a-week watering ban, she said.

“We’re at a point where there’s nothing more that we, as a city, can do,” she said.

Handt encouraged anyone upset about the possibility of a new school not being located in Lake Elmo to contact Gov. Tim Walz or Attorney General Keith Ellison.

“They’re the ones who can advocate for us with the judge,” she said. “It’s frustrating to us that the golf courses can be allowed enough water to maintain green grass and the level of White Bear Lake can be kept artificially high, and yet we can’t get a school to serve our kids.”

Handt said city officials in June alerted district officials about concerns about limitations of water usage that are being imposed on the city by the DNR; Funk said district officials were not told about the city’s water concerns until a meeting on Sept. 15.

“The district administration would never have recommended a purchase agreement for a property that needed a well, especially with local PFAS issues, without consulting the DNR first,” Funk said Thursday. “This isn’t my first time doing this sort of stuff, so there’s no way I would have told our board, ‘Oh, I want you to spend money on buying this land, but I can’t guarantee that you’re going to have water.’”

City officials told district officials earlier this year that the 47-acre plot of land “was a solid choice, as the city administration told us we would not need to rezone, it had good road access, and we could build there with simple council approval,” Funk wrote in a letter to city officials this week. “The administration was clear that although there was a sewer hook up across the street, we would likely need to have 4/5 council approval to change the MUSA. Water was never brought up as a concern.”

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District planners were subsequently told in planning meetings in October by the city administration that they did not have the votes on the City Council to hook up to city water, according to Funk’s letter.

When Funk contacted the DNR to ask about the feasibility of digging a well at the location, Joe Richter, the agency’s district appropriations hydrologist, recommended that the district hook up to city water for the water supply of the school “due to the presence of the pollution in the groundwater in this area.”

“I believe that by hooking up to the city water supply, you would avoid possible litigation should someone claim that the quality of the school drinking water is harming the student’s health,” Richter wrote in an Oct. 23 email.

The bond referendum for a new school in Lake Elmo passed by a margin of more than 2,000 votes throughout the district. In the Lake Elmo precincts, it passed with almost 70 percent approval, Funk said.

“As it appears that the district does not have council approval to hook up to city water (which the DNR states is safest for our students), and it appears unlikely that we will gain approval in the near future, we are going to have to look at other options outside of Lake Elmo for our students, to keep with our planning timeline of opening a school by the fall of 2026,” Funk wrote in the letter to city officials this week.

“The district has until November 27th to cancel our current purchase agreement on the 47 acres,’ the letter continued. “Unless there is some movement of support to keeping a school with water (and preferably septic), I will be recommending we cancel this purchase agreement. This is a difficult recommendation to make, as the school has been part of the community for over a century. Being upfront on this issue earlier in the process would have been quite helpful.”

Funk recommends that people interested in keeping an elementary school in Lake Elmo “put pressure on their elected officials at all levels to get this thing done.”

“I am confident that if we work together with community partners in the district, we will arrive at a successful solution that meets the needs of our students, whether that is in Lake Elmo or elsewhere,” he said.

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