Suburbia is sprouting in the open fields of Medina

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 11:21 PM

About 400 new homes have been approved, including a project OK'd by the City Council against the recommendation of planning officials.

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Mike and Ann Jeweson stood in front of their four-bedroom house they are having built in Medina Thursday September 20, 2012.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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A burst of new subdivisions with names like the Enclave and Fields in Medina has the city at odds over how to grow while keeping the character and feel of a community known for its horse farms and large homes on sprawling lots.

The City Council approved the most recent project last week, against the recommendation of the city's Planning Commission, whose chairman called it "boring" and said it "smacks of Plymouth." Debate has focused on the layout and mix of housing in some of the subdivisions, part of the westward march of development that has filled in much of nearby Maple Grove and Plymouth.

"I think suburbia, to the extent it's moving, has come to Medina," Mayor Tom Crosby said.

Residential new construction is rebounding nationwide, and affordable land in Medina is driving the spate of development there. The city of about 5,000 has approved four new housing projects in the past 20 months, including one Tuesday. A fifth is under review. The four will build a total of 334 single-family homes and 64 townhomes on about 175 acres over the next few years.

One factor driving growth is that low mortgage interest rates are enabling some younger people to skip starter homes and go directly to larger houses, Crosby said. Another is that the areas being platted are served by the metro sewer system, he said, and are all within the highly ranked Wayzata School District.

Affordable land aplenty

Ryan Jones, Twin Cities director of the housing research firm Metrostudy, said Medina is a "unique submarket" because it saw relatively little activity during the housing boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. No traditional subdivisions have been built there for at least a decade, he said, although builders have continued to construct some custom homes "north of a million dollars" on 5- or 10-acre tracts of land.

Now the city finds itself with a large supply of affordable land at just the time demand for new homes is strengthening, Jones said. "There are a handful of metro communities that have one or two of these [subdivision] proposals, but not to the size and scope as Medina because there's just not as much of that available land in a close-in market," Jones said. The city is about 20 miles west of downtown Minneapolis.

The subdivision approved last week is the Fields of Medina West, a 23-acre field where 64 new single-family homes will replace the corn that has sprouted there for decades. It's on Meander Road, north of Hwy. 55 and east of Arrowhead Drive, next to a similar project by the same developer.

Creativity sought

Medina's Planning Commission reviewed the proposal last month and said it would remove too many trees, create traffic problems and be too close to future commercial development expected along Hwy. 55. Members questioned why the project should not be rezoned to allow mixed use, with townhouses or twin homes on some of the land to form more of a "transition zone" between single-family homes and expected retail along the highway.

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Nolan said the project "smacks of Plymouth" and called it "boring," according to minutes from a Nov. 13 public hearing on the matter. The commission voted unanimously to deny recommending that the land be developed as proposed, unless the builder -- Mattamy Homes -- returned with a more creative project.

Nolan did not return calls and e-mails to be interviewed last week.

Medina City Planner Dusty Finke said it's difficult to be very creative on 23 acres, since the city must meet density requirements of 3.5 housing units per acre, according to its comprehensive plan overseen by the Metropolitan Council. Since all the Mattamy homes were to be single-family dwellings, Finke said, "There wasn't a lot of flexibility to curve streets and to have a lot of open space."

Plans modified

Mattamy is Canada's largest homebuilder with operations in several states. Its Minnesota division president, Steve Logan, said Medina is attractive, especially to younger families. "Residents of Minnesota gravitate toward strong school districts, and this has one," he said. Most of the homes will be in the $400,000-and-up range, he said.

Although Mattamy did not propose any townhomes, it modified the project to meet some of the other planning commission concerns about traffic flow and open space. It proposed to build a 6-foot berm between the subdivision and the commercially designated land. To accommodate other objections about filling in a small wetland and cutting down too many trees in a corner of the property, Mattamy will donate about 3 acres and $150,000 to build a new park between its two subdivisions.

That satisfied Medina's City Council, which approved the rezoning and preliminary plat unanimouly Tuesday.

Crosby, the mayor, acknowledged that it's unusual for the council to approve something after the Planning Commission recommends a denial. The difference, he said, was that the commission was doing its job and raising specific issues about the site, while he viewed the rezoning decision as consistent with the city's long-range plans for development.

Crosby said he doesn't believe that cities should dictate too many details such as housing styles and paint color as long as a developer "meets land use and public safety standards, and what is customary in the community."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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