By Andrew Tellijohn
One of Minnesota’s largest townships is now a city.
Credit River — with a bigger square footage than nearby Apple Valley and a larger population than more than 60 cities in the seven-county metropolitan area — is now eligible for local government aid from the state and municipal state aid for road projects.
The year-long process became reality on June 7, when the winners of a May special election were sworn in as the first Credit River mayor and City Council.
It’s the state’s first township to become a city since Rice Lake, located north of Duluth, did the same thing in 2015. It brings the total number of Minnesota cities to 854.
“It does feel a little different,” says Chris Kostik, who now serves as mayor of the city of nearly 6,000 residents. “It almost feels like there is a little more respect from our partners and other government entities.”
Started years ago
Credit River Township officially declared its desire to become a city in July 2020 through the approval of a resolution by the Township Board. But, in truth, it’s been a nearly 15-year-long journey that began in 2006 when area development caught residents’ attention.
“There was a big group of residents who brought it up at that point and wanted to move forward,” says Kostik, who previously served as chair of the Township Board.
The township began budgeting to start making the change in 2010. In 2018, Credit River lost two small parcels of land totaling about 15 acres when residents desiring sewer and water service applied to Prior Lake for annexation.
When a third application came in 2020, the Prior Lake City Council declined to pursue it. But with development creeping closer to its borders, and the likelihood that further annexation efforts could loom, residents determined they’d prefer to have more control over its future.
“As a township, when there are requests for annexation, by state statute you don’t really have any say in the matter,” Kostik says. “It’s really up to the city to decide if it wants the property.”
The township’s transition made a big leap closer to reality in late January when Administrative Law Judge Jessica Palmer-Denig granted its petition for incorporation. That set the stage for the May election and June certification.
“I’m happy to say that after all the work we put into this, that the residents appreciated it and elected me to continue to lead Credit River into the future,” Kostik says.
In addition to Kostik, residents elected four city council members. Former Township Board members Brent Lawrence and Leroy Schommer were selected to serve four-year terms. Another sitting board member, Alan Novak, was elected to a two-year term, as was the lone newcomer to Credit River’s elected leadership team, Andrew Stevens.
No immediate changes
Most residents won’t notice many immediate differences, Kostik says. For example, the new city has already long been contracting for fire and rescue services with Prior Lake and for law enforcement services with the Scott County Sheriff’s Department. Those contracts are expected to continue. The only change is that Scott County added a new deputy to focus on Credit River.
City officials do see the potential for development in the future, with neighboring communities close to full and interest being expressed by developers.
“A lot of the reason behind becoming a city is to be ready,” Kostik says. “We look to continue to plan for development and growth in a responsible way. That was our whole goal. We know change is coming and to be in control of it, this was the step we had to take.”
Residents also won’t see much difference in their local leadership. Although there was significantly more interest in serving this year, as 13 residents competed for mayor and council seats, the special election brought four of the five sitting Township Board members along to the new City Council.
The board members in the past have had phone numbers and emails available on the township website. That will continue for council members on the city website.
“Our residents know who we are,” says Council Member Lawrence. “If there are things people need and things they want immediately, they tend to call one of us. We’ve been operating this way for a long time. It works.”
Change, growth will come over time
Although much will remain the same, a few changes have already been made. As part of the transition, Credit River took over its own planning and zoning from Scott County in January. Leaders also filed Credit River’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan with the Metropolitan Council. The document covers the city’s plans in a variety of areas, including future housing development, land use, transportation, surface water, and sanitary sewer.
The plan keeps things pretty conservative into the near future, say Kostik and Lawrence.
According to the plan, growth and land use, for example, will be managed in a fiscally-responsible manner that will result in infrastructure investments to support growth and the maintenance of reasonable tax rates.
Its policies include the standard that developers will pay for all direct costs associated with development. Developers will also contribute a proportionate share of the costs associated with new or expanding services to accommodate new development.
In the area of future housing development, the plan says the city will look for funding from other sources — federal, state, and local — to help develop affordable housing. It will also support county goals in developing affordable rental and owner-occupied housing.
“Overall, our vision is to deliver the same level of service that we did to our residents when we were a township,” Lawrence says. “Anything additional we would be looking to do, we’d have to determine if there is really a need and what is the cost versus the benefit.”
Support from neighbors
Credit River, along the eastern edge of Scott County, is south of Savage, west of Lakeville, and southeast of Prior Lake. As a township, Credit River worked closely with those cities and other neighboring municipalities, both individually and through the Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency.
Savage Mayor Janet Williams says leaders from Savage and Credit River meet regularly and have cooperated on several occasions. For example, there is a mining operation with property in both cities that had plans to expand, and Savage was involved in planning and permitting. “That will continue,” Williams says.
They also have a cooperative agreement for environmentally-sound sharing of water, and for snowplowing when it makes sense. In addition, they have worked together with the Metropolitan Council to enlarge the Metropolitan Urban Services Area governing sewer infrastructure into Credit River.
“For us, it’s just been our mode of operation,” she says.
While Prior Lake did annex two plots of land in Credit River, Mayor Kirt Briggs says he thinks the transition will be of great benefit to residents, who will eventually get sewer and water service.
The transition also creates opportunities for interconnections among adjacent city water supplies. Over time, Briggs adds, as infrastructure improves and development increases in Credit River, it will allow the new city to take on a greater percentage of the cost-sharing related to public safety.
Also, cities participate in cost-share agreements with the county, and townships don’t, Briggs says. So, that’s another new advantage for Credit River.
“There are large roads that connect from 35W into the city of Prior Lake,” he says. “Now, with Credit River as a city, certainly those road enhancements that might be needed due to increased traffic and demand would bring public safety benefits, not only to the citizens of Credit River, but also for those visitors or residents of Prior Lake that use that road system.”
Control is biggest benefit
Kostik agrees that the city enjoys good relationships with its neighbors, but also acknowledges that the annexations represent a potential loss of future tax base for Credit River. And there was a realization that without a change, additional properties on the border of Savage and Prior Lake could eventually have requested annexation as well.
While there will be development coming to the area, the biggest benefit to becoming a city, Kostik says, is Credit River’s ability to maintain tighter control over how that growth happens.
“Either you’re going to have control or someone else is,” he says.
That was important to residents, who would like to make sure the city maintains its small-town appeal.
“The residents all tell us they like Credit River the way it is, and they are a little worried about some of the change,” Kostik says. The City Council has “understood that [and], as much as we can, we will try to keep things the same. Change will happen over time naturally, but there’s no light switch today that says, ‘Tuesday, we’re going to have big changes in Credit River.’”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.