The French Creek neighborhood in Orono is an enclave of million-dollar homes on beautiful, wooded lots a short stroll from Lake Minnetonka. Residents are justifiably proud and protective of their property, and signs posted at the entrances to the neighborhood discourage peddlers and outsiders.
Several French Creek residents have helped organize opposition to the Emily Program, an eating disorder clinic that wants to set up shop in a former school building on the neighborhood's fringe. Some homeowners on streets closer to the school also object. It seems at first glance a case study in the social phenomenon known as not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY. But this dispute is more intriguing and less clear-cut than similar zoning issues that have played out in the Twin Cities in recent years.
There is little credible evidence that the Emily Program would diminish the quality of life for area residents. A more legitimate objection is that the requested new zoning would stay in place if the Emily Program were to move or close, opening the door for, say, a drug or alcohol treatment facility to move in without a full hearing of the different concerns that might raise. A potential compromise would be to grant the program an interim use permit, meaning that the property would return to its previous zoning if there were a change in ownership. The city's staff is studying that option, and it's our hope that the interim permit will be granted.
Some residents are concerned about increased traffic and emergency vehicles, arguing that the 10-bed clinic would be a "bad fit'' for the neighborhood. Others focus on parking issues, the 24/7 operating schedule and the possible impact on real estate values.
Of course, any time an affluent area seems less-than-hospitable to an organization involved in doing good, media interest intensifies. An objection from neighbor Gregg Steinhafel, whose day job is CEO of Target Corp., raised the profile of the Emily Program dispute. And in today's environment of anonymous and hateful website commenting and fierce competition for local news that sells, community quarrels can generate metrowide attention.
TV cameras and a handful of journalists were on hand at Orono City Hall this week for an emotional hearing before about 100 residents. Emily Program supporters accused opponents of fear mongering and insensitivity to the needs of eating disorder sufferers. Several opponents praised the work of the program but emphasized the rights of property owners to object to the zoning change needed for the clinic.
They're right on that point; even the well-off have a right to be heard. The most serious issue isn't traffic, parking or noise. The nearby Minnetonka Center for the Arts creates plenty of noise and traffic, and some opponents are inconsistently open to the idea of the former Hill School building being used as a school again despite bus and parent traffic. But the zoning issue is a valid concern, and the interim permit is a smart alternative that deserves City Council support.
For the most part, Orono residents have engaged in an intelligent discussion. The debate has forced residents to assess what they value most about living in their community and -- as one neighbor said Monday night -- how they want to be perceived by the rest of the state. Hopefully it's also helped to demystify eating disorders, which affect an estimated 175,000 Minnesotans and more than 11 million Americans.
The city can strike a balance between the concerns of area residents and the potential for the Emily Program to invest millions of dollars in an empty school building. With a potential compromise in sight, fear shouldn't rule the day.