Arden Hills, Ramsey County move further apart in TCAAP dispute


file photo Development of the 427-acre area in Arden Hills, dubbed the Rice Creek Commons, could start this year.

Ramsey County will pursue legal action to move forward with a major development in Arden Hills, though without the north metro suburb’s input.

It isn’t yet clear what those actions might look like, but on April 2, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution directing staff to pursue any legal option necessary to kickstart the stalled project.

“This is just the board’s way of saying, ‘Let’s move forward. Let’s come to a conclusion to move forward and get this project done,’” said Commissioner Rafael Ortega at the meeting.

Ortega has for years sat on the Joint Development Authority board, which brought the county and Arden Hills together to work out the development terms for the 427-acre former site of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant.

The county is now looking to dissolve the joint powers board and move ahead with plans for up to 2,500 housing units at the development, dubbed the Rice Creek Commons. That number was laid out as a maximum density level in a 2014 survey for the project, known as an alternative urban areawide review.

County documents say that denser housing will make the project more financially viable and open up options for more affordable units. County commissioners feel that Arden Hills was getting in the way of that goal.

“We’ve just done everything we possibly can to avoid getting to this day, but here we are,” said Commissioner Jim McDonough.

 

Arden Hills

A day before the county board passed its resolution, Arden Hills officials attempted to convene a Joint Development Authority board meeting.

It was all but certain that there wouldn’t be enough people to get started. The county’s representatives on the board — Ortega and fellow Commissioner Blake Huffman — hadn’t shown up at four of the five board meetings scheduled for 2019.

So on April 1, the Arden Hills board members gathered in the city’s council chambers. Mayor David Grant, Arden Hills City Council member Brenda Holden and board chair Brian Holmes waited five minutes for county members to appear and then closed the meeting for lack of quorum.

In the city’s view, any disagreements over development terms should be hashed out by the joint authority board, which was set up for that purpose. But county members had given up on those meetings.

“Who’s delaying this? It’s obviously them,” Grant said in an interview prior to the meeting.

Grant and his Arden Hills colleagues have said for months that Ramsey County left them out of the process through a lack of communication. 

The county’s preference of 2,500 housing units was new information to Arden Hills, Grant said. Throughout 2018, the county and city had been working with a summary master agreement that specified 1,460 housing units.

“Even in September, they were still very much with this framework agreement,” Grant said. “So basically, they have failed to put together a document in order to sell the property to the developer. We all agreed on the plan. And I’m shocked that they failed to put that agreement together.”

The summary master agreement, which was passed by the joint authority board with both city and county members, called for 1,460 units. Ten percent of them would be affordable housing units, according to the document.

 

Shovel-ready

County commissioners said on April 2 that the terms set out in the summary master agreement weren’t enough to satisfy affordable housing needs. 

Commissioner Toni Carter said that if the project needs more affordable housing, then denser housing covers the cost.

“We know that this project, with only 1,460 units of residential housing, and where only 10% of those are affordable at 80% of the area median income, simply does not match or align with our comprehensive plans for this county,” she said.

The meeting marked the first public statements from Ramsey County about its goals for development terms like density. Ramsey County commissioners previously held two closed sessions to discuss how to move forward. 

County representatives said the meetings were closed to discuss real estate offers and prices, which is allowed under state law.

In one of the meetings, held on Jan. 22, commissioners agreed to try and enter mediation sessions with Arden Hills, according to a Feb. 8 letter from McDonough.

The letter didn’t mention discussions about real estate offers. The summary master agreement had already laid out a purchasing strategy for Alatus LLC, the developer, which included a $62.7 million minimum price tag.

In response to an information request, Ramsey County declined to release minutes or transcripts from the meeting for discussions that weren’t related to real estate offers. The county reasoned that all the discussions impacted the asking price in some way.

“These agreements have not been executed, and until they are, given the nuances of the possible outcomes of the outstanding issues, the final price for the property is possibly affected,” the county’s written response said, in part.

Arden Hills officials said they received no communication from the county while those meetings took place. A statement released on April 2 from Arden Hills said the city hasn’t had meaningful talks with the county for five months. These are bullying tactics, the city’s statement said.

As the county mounts a legal strategy, Grant indicated that the city will continue its attempts to hold joint authority board meetings.

 

–Matt Hudson can be reached at mhudson@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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