Is Lake Elmo trying to bulldoze a family farm for more housing?

Molly Schiltgen thought asking for permission from the city to board 12 horses wasn't asking too much. She's still floored by how wrong she was.

Molly Schiltgen thought asking for permission from the city to board 12 horses wasn't asking too much. She's still floored by how wrong she was.

That sound in Lake Elmo is the clippety-clop of horses in the middle of one of the metro's fastest growing suburbs. The handful of animals belong to the Schiltgen family, which has owned the farm for more than 80 years.

In more recent times, revenue from rental cropland has paid the bills. But those parcels have been sold off to developers. What remains is about 135 acres with a whole lot of history.  

Two old barns sit on the property. One dates back to the 19th century, the other to 1910, a white barn with big lettering that says "LEO SCHILTGEN LAKE ELMO, MINN."  

Brothers Pete and Robert Schiltgen have been farming since they were little. Pete is 85. Robert will be 78 in April. In order to keep the farm going, Pete's daughter Molly wants to open a boarding operation for no more than a dozen horses.

While the barns aren't going anywhere, the business would require construction of a new $2 million building. Everyone in the family is in agreement they want to preserve the historic parcel. 

Three members of the five-person Lake Elmo City Council aren't so keen. 

The panel rejected the horse-boarding enterprise last month. The decision robs the farm of the capacity to generate income, according to Molly. Mayor Mike Pearson and council members Christine Nelson and Justin Bloyer combined to shoot down the plan, which came on the heels of the planning commission's 7 to 0 vote to greenlight the project.

The surprise decision is raising eyebrows and suspicions. Among those who wonder if the council is angling to see cul-de-sacs replace the farm one day are Jill Lundgren and Julie Fliflet. They're the two council members who voted in favor of the boarding enterprise.  

The suburb is currently in the midst of a development boom. Construction of more than 1,000 new houses has already been approved. Hundreds more are in the planning pipeline. The town's population is expected to more than double to 18,000 by 2040.    

"How can you go from a unanimous decision to approve one month to a no vote in October?" asks Molly. "Yes, they said I could build the new building, but they said no to the boarding business operating on the property. I can't install a $2 million piece of infrastructure without a way to make money. What I was asking for was a use permit to operate the farm in a commercial capacity — the same way it has for the past 100 years. 

"We are now in a situation where the property is unusable. It has no mechanism to make money at this point other than the development of houses. I am fearful that they want to paint us into a corner where we have no choice but to sell it off for development. I say: It's not for sale."  

Lake Elmo's growth spurt surrounds the Schiltgen property. The parcel is classified as a preservation area, according to the city, but a zoning map shows it's destined for development.

Mayor Pearson argues a growth area can't be removed without finding another one to replace it. Pearson understands this can be a tightrope when dealing with private property rights.

Pearson understands how the council's decision, juxtaposed with the planning commission's, looks bad. But "the planning commission, in essence, serves in an advisory capacity," he says. "… Its decision is certainly wrong at this point."

Council member Bloyer has witnessed another issue ever since he was a lad. Every spring, runoff from the Schiltgen property floods nearby homes in downtown Lake Elmo, according to Bloyer. This despite the fact the city recently invested $10 million to replace existing pipes in the area and build a five-acre holding pond, among other improvements. Although Bloyer has no definitive data that shows the Schiltgen's land is behind the annual deluge, he says he doesn't need it.