Lake Elmo design manual focused on small-town charm

New developments must now be distinctly Lake Elmo.

The Lake Elmo City Council recently approved design standards to foster high-quality developments that encourage the quaintness of the Old Village and the open-space ambiance the rural city boasts.

One council member said the manual is too restrictive. But other council members and city staffers said it was a reasonable approach to guide significant business and residential developments that are anticipated citywide and specifically in the Interstate 94 corridor and the Old Village business district.

With input from the council, the staff and planning commission developed the nearly 30 pages that will act as the main tool of site and building design review. It offers guidance on materials, colors and architectural features that enhance the city’s character.

The commission reviewed multiple drafts reportedly as far back as August 2012, took into account input from a stakeholder meeting, and spent seven meetings assessing the standards, some of which staff borrowed from or modeled after other cities’ guidelines.

The comprehensive plan calls for such a manual. It says: “The city will adopt design standards to ensure the look and feel of future developments is compatible with the community vision of a small town with a rural setting.”

Think earth tones, lots of windows, roofs with multiple peaks and pedestrian- and traffic-friendly landscaping and building placement.

What’s in it

Specific values, such as quality materials, charm and visual interest, are encouraged and are the basis for specific stipulations for developments in commercial, high-density residential, business park and mixed-use areas.

Trees, plant beds and potted plants are often suggested in the manual, especially to reduce impervious surfaces and improve the look of parking lots. Most rules discourage sides of buildings with no windows or few design details, and encourage developers to work with the natural landscape to create “unique design.”

Photos are used on most pages to demonstrate the guidelines.

Reasons for exceptions include construction that exceeds the standards in quality, promotes the themes of the manual or incorporates significant storm water management or sustainability features.

The council is able to tweak the document, which is available on the city’s website (, once actual projects make their way through the new process.

How it was made

After considering the manual at its Nov. 6 meeting, the council decided to move the discussion to a workshop the next week.

Council member Anne Smith, who tried to make a motion to adopt the manual at the early November meeting, said she didn’t want the council to be caught up “wordsmithing” the document that the planning commission had already fine-tuned at several meetings.

Mayor Mike Pearson said there were possible substantive changes that the council needed to discuss.

“Some of us have brought up some reasonable concerns,” Pearson said at the meeting.

Mike Reeves agreed. “I have tremendous respect for the planning commission, especially since I was on it,” Reeves said. “We need to give this due diligence.”

At the Nov. 12 workshop, the council edited it slightly and made a few guidelines somewhat less restrictive, where requirements were turned into suggestions by changing words, such as “must,” to “encouraged to” or “discouraged to.”

Language encouraging rain gardens was removed, as the council members felt the city’s stormwater ordinance and the local watershed districts should address the topic, according to a staff report. Examples of simulated building materials were added. The requirement to submit samples of such materials was cut.

Community development director Kyle Klatt said at the next meeting that the changes made at the workshop weren’t significant.

“They were more refining, and bringing the document into more conformance with the vision that the city council has,” Klatt said.

The council approved the manual on Nov. 19. Justin Bloyer, who cast the sole dissenting vote, would have preferred a hands-off approach.

He urged his fellow council members to vote against the manual, calling the standards “overbearing.”

“The Old Village wasn’t created with design standards. It was organic,” Bloyer said.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at or 651-748-7814. You can also find her on (@KRobyNews).

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