A small patch of land in Inver Grove Heights has become the focal point of a standoff between its would-be developers and its neighbors, who are fighting plans for a senior housing project there.

Once used as farmland, the 3.4-acre parcel at Brent Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets is now filled with woods, providing a scenic background for the houses that surround it.

The land was subdivided into lots for houses in the 1880s and zoned for low-density housing, but its steep topography has made development difficult. Now its owners, led by Hastings resident Jeff Leyde, want to a build a three-story senior housing development.

City staffers and the Planning Commission have come out against the plans, which would require a land use change allowing high-density housing. The staff and the commission said the city should avoid "spot zoning," allowing an isolated property that wouldn't fit in with others immediately around it.

Neighbors agree, saying they never would have bought their homes if they thought they would overlook a large, multiunit property. Homeowner Jason Price told the City Council last week he and others have long known that single-family homes could be built there someday. "Neighbors? Fine," Price said. "But a building? A parking lot? That's not what I signed up for."

The council agreed with a request by Leyde, through his attorney, to a delay a decision until it meets May 27 to give the developers time to resolve issues with the neighbors. "I don't know what's going to change in 30 days," Price said. Another resident said the developers already had a meeting with 30 to 40 homeowners and described its atmosphere as "quite volatile."

City planners agree that the steep topography and today's ponding requirements present challenges. The lots that were laid out in the 1880s don't meet current size standards, so the developers would still need some kind of council approval if they scrapped plans for the large building and decided to build houses instead. As it is, their plan calls for about 10 single-family homes scattered around the senior building.

Having a single, large building could reduce the amount of grading and tree removal required. City planners also acknowledged there's a need for senior housing and pointed out that it typically generates less traffic than apartments or condominiums.

But changing the land use to high-density residential could open the door for projects other than senior housing. So far the developers have presented only a conceptual plan for the site. "Virtually anything could go in there," Planning Commissioner Harold Gooch said. That uncertainty and concern over spot zoning were the principal reasons the commission unanimously recommended that the council deny Leyde's request for the land use change.

Leyde, who runs a property management business in Hastings, declined to comment after the meeting. His representatives told the Planning Commission last month that if the request for the land use change is denied, the developers are not sure what other type of development would be economically feasible.

Bill Dumond, whose back yard would face the proposed senior housing building, told the Planning Commission that reducing a developer's expenses should not be the rationale for a land use change.

Dumond said he understands the need for senior housing. "There is also a need for a gas station, there's a need for high-rise housing, a need for convenience stores and fire stations," he said. "That doesn't mean they belong in my back yard, and it doesn't mean that the city should completely change the way it has intended the property to be used."