Arden Hills says Ramsey County 'bullying' city to rush Rice Creek Commons development


Arden Hills convened an Aug. 27 city council work session to draft a letter asking Ramsey County to slow the pace of work on the Rice Creek Commons development, which is in Arden Hills on land owned by Ramsey County. The two entities are heading the redevelopment together. Specifically, the city wanted to delay a Sept. 4 vote on the development's master plan, but the county said Aug. 28 it's moving forward as planned. (file photo)

The Arden Hills City Council said Ramsey County -- its partner in the massive Rice Creek Commons development -- is pushing the city to rush the project. 

It convened an impromptu and spirited city council work session the evening of Aug. 27 to draft a letter to the county telling it to pump the breaks. The council action came a week ahead of a planned Sept. 4 joint authority meeting between Arden Hills and the county during which there is a planned vote on the executive summary of the development plan for the 427-acre Rice Creek Commons site.

In its letter the city asked the county to pull the summary from the meeting to give the it more time to look at it. At an Aug. 28 meeting, the county decided to present the executive summary as planned.

In March, following years of clean up to clear contamination left by the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant to residential standards at the site, and years more of infrastructure planning, a Rice Creek Commons development deal between developer Alatus, LLC, and the joint authority of Ramsey County and Arden Hills was moving along and nearly complete. 

The city and county have a joint powers agreement with respect to the former TCAAP site, which is located in Arden Hills and owned by Ramsey County.
At the time, Alatus chief developer Bob Lux said Rice Creek Commons construction could begin as soon as 2020. 

But Arden Hills City Council members and city staffers now say the pace is rushing the city -- and that the county is dismissing their concerns. 

According to council members Brenda Holden and Fran Holmes, Ramsey County officials are bringing the executive summary to a vote too soon. Holden said during the work session that when she and Holmes told the county that September was too early, county officials said "tough."

The agenda for the Sept. 4 joint authority meeting is made public the week before, and should include the development plan summary. The agenda could be public as soon as Aug. 28. 

As of the Aug. 27 work session, Arden Hills City Council members had not yet seen the executive summary, giving them very little time to review the plan prior to the planned Sept. 4 vote. 

"How incredibly unfair this is," said Mayor David Grant, adding he didn't feel the county was forming a true partnership with the city. Council member Steve Scott said it appeared the county was trying to shift responsibility for the project -- or blame -- to the city. 

"Its bullying," said Holden. 

Council member Dave McClung said the county rushing approval is "a stunt" in the hopes of speeding up the development.

Due to environmental concerns with the land, which was used for decades as an ammunition plant, and the unfinished development plan, Grant said he finds it curious the county is in such a rush to start building. 

Holden also said she was disappointed with Blake Huffman, the county commissioner who represents Arden Hills on the Ramsey County Board, claiming he has been absent or silent in stepping up for the city. 

Holmes said the city, acting on its own, had already expressed concerns to the county about the pace of work on the large development. Grant said those entreaties seem to have "fallen on deaf ears."

"Something needs to be done," Holmes said at the meeting. 

County meets

The Ramsey County Board held a closed door meeting the morning of Aug. 28 to review Arden Hills' letter.

In an interview following the meeting, Louis Jambois, head of the Ramsey County side of the development authority, said Arden Hills had not said anything about feeling rushed until "right now."

He said the county has been meeting weekly with Arden Hills city staff -- its city administrator, city planner and city engineer -- since March, saying he believes the county has kept the city "fully informed" and that Arden Hills has been "active participants in all discussions."

In the closed door county meeting, the board approved presenting the master development plan at the joint authority meeting on Sept. 4.

In a statement, County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said the board encourages the joint authority to pass the master development agreement framework, "so that we can move full steam ahead on this project during this strong economic cycle."

Jambois said Ramsey County is moving forward for two main reasons. The county and developer have sunk considerable costs into planning development infrastructure. Those costs cannot be recouped until after the project moves forward. 

Secondly, the county is in a hurry because the market is good. Jambois said they want to be well-positioned to take advantage of it.

Moving forward, Jambois said the county will continue to work with Arden Hills to air out and address any serious disagreements in a constructive and timely manner in order to start building by 2020. 

Despite multiple attempts, Huffman could not be reached for comment.

The joint authority meeting is set for Tuesday, Sept. 4, starting at 5:30 p.m. at Arden Hills City Hall. 

Letter to the county 

Arden Hills city staff confirmed the letter was sent to Ramsey County Aug. 27. 

In it, the city said that council members and city staffers "unanimously request" that the county's executive summary for the development be pulled from the Sept. 4 meeting. 

The city notes that, before the Aug. 27 letter, it had requested three weeks to review any joint development or master development plan-related documents. Since the city hasn't had time to review the documents, city staffers don't want them made public. 

The letter also includes a list of the city's concerns with the partnership, including issues over who will pay development fees to the Metropolitan Council that typically come with any development. 

Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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