Minnetonka is debating plans to squeeze more homes on smaller lots.
But the western suburb’s distinctive qualities are proving a powerful draw to developers, who are eager to divide some of those large residential lots into multiple homesites, and to tear down old commercial properties to make way for new and, often, larger businesses.
This month, the Minnetonka City Council will vote on several projects tucked into or near long-established neighborhoods, and residents fear that a surge of infill development could profoundly change the look and feel of their city.
“Big homes on small lots — that’s not what Minnetonka is about,” resident Debora Terrell said. “There’s a better way to do this to protect the character of our neighborhood.”
Her neighborhood is one of several riled up over redevelopment plans they fear will draw more traffic, gobble up vacant land, take down towering trees and forever alter quaint neighborhoods.
Terrell moved to her 1955 rambler 12 years ago, drawn to a back yard that faces the bottom of a wooded hill between Hwy. 7 and Excelsior Boulevard. But if a developer’s plan to subdivide the nearly 3-acre lot into seven residential lots is approved June 24, her back yard will look out on two 2-story homes that could be priced at $900,000 apiece.
“It will affect everybody’s properties,” she said.
Two miles away, the same developer wants to subdivide a 3-acre site into six lots. And just last month, a large estate home nestled in a single-family neighborhood near Hwy. 101 was torn down to be subdivided into seven lots.
Residents insist they’re not against development; they just want fewer homes on larger lots. The developer counters that he’s just trying to accommodate the city’s goal and the market trend of smaller lots.
Mayor Terry Schneider says the City Council will try to find a solution for all sides.
“The question is, how do you balance the desire of the neighborhood with the needs of the property owners?” he said. “Nobody knows what the right answer is. We don’t want to shut down development; we just want to make sure it fits right in the community.”
When Minnetonka developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the city wanted to preserve the topography and wooded areas instead of creating a grid system. In Minneapolis, a typical lot is about one-tenth of an acre. But in Minnetonka, half-acre lots became the norm, in part so the city could rely on septic systems instead of sewers.
Schneider, a longtime resident, said those decisions helped create rural-like curvy roads and “funny-looking” lots that left pockets of available land tucked in established areas.
“It left us with quirky-looking parcels you wouldn’t see in most communities,” he said. It “was a great goal, but it made it more difficult to redevelop.”
Now that’s what companies are trying to do, although, in Minnetonka, it’s hard for redevelopment to not affect a residential area. Single-family homes make up 47 percent of the city geographically. (By comparison, single-family homes make up 28 percent of Eden Prairie).
In Terrell’s neighborhood, Curt Fretham of Lakewest Development will ask June 24 for city approval of the “Woods of Fairview” project as a planned unit development that would subdivide 3 acres into seven smaller lots from 13,800 to 21,000 square feet apiece. The city’s norm is 22,000-square-foot lots, but it has allowed 15,000-square-foot lots.
Terri Weispfenning lives next to the area that would be subdivided for Park Valley Estates. “Many people have moved to Minnetonka because they want a nice-sized home on a large lot with lots of trees,” she said. “This development just goes against what Minnetonka has grown to be and strives to be.”
Fretham, also a longtime Minnetonka resident, said he’s sympathetic to concerns and has adjusted plans, reducing the Park Valley Estates plan from 10 homes to six.
“Any time a property is developed, it changes a [neighborhood’s] character, not just in Minnetonka but in any city,” he said. “We try to address [concerns] the best we can.”
Although the City Council is struggling to come to a consensus on the proposals, Schneider said one of the city’s goals is to bring in more smaller, moderately priced homes ($450,000 to $500,000) because of a growing demand from younger couples who seek an urban, more-compact lifestyle in the suburbs.
Council Member Bob Ellingson, whose ward has two of the controversial projects, said he worries that bigger homes will end up going on the smaller lots.
“It just looks funny. These bigger homes need some elbow room. And I think that’s what people in Minnetonka are used to,” he said of the half-acre standard lot.
Subdivisions bring changes
As for losing trees, grading and street changes that residents oppose, city Community Development Director Julie Wischnack said they would happen no matter the number of homes built. The subdivision proposals, she pointed out, still keep the character of a single-family neighborhood.
That’s not the case for neighbors of a proposed medical building off Hwy. 7. On Monday, they’ll try to persuade the City Council to reject rezoning residential land for a two-story, 68,600-square-foot building, saying it’s too drastic for their neighborhood and will bring more traffic and noise from ambulances. Off Minnetonka Boulevard, residents’ outcry over a four-story senior home they say wouldn’t fit in resulted in a scaled-down plan that will be presented to the city on June 10.
As a developer, Fretham said he’s used to seeing resident outcry, and hopes the neighbors of his proposed projects eventually are pleased with them.
“Oftentimes, once developments are done and people understand and see it completed, they get used to it,” he said. “In the end, it’s really not that bad.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib