Growing pressure from Minnetonka residents fighting to preserve their city’s wooded, spacious neighborhoods has successfully swayed developers to downsize recent plans.
In the west-metro suburb, residents say they just want redevelopment plans to fit into their quaint, established neighborhoods, where tree-lined half-acre lots have become the norm.
“It’s [about] preserving the character not only of our neighborhoods, but of Minnetonka,” longtime resident Terri Weispfenning said. “We like to think of Minnetonka as this island oasis from the urban jungle. We’d like to preserve that … greenery and open space that brought us to Minnetonka.”
That opposition has influenced the City Council to approve a scaled-down plan for one proposal and to direct two developers to reduce their plans, one of which will be voted on next Monday.
The debate comes just before the City Council will start a broader discussion July 22 about whether to change city policies on home sizes and lots as industry standards evolve. The larger lot sizes that residents have become accustomed to may not be sustainable long-term, city leaders say.
“We’re trying to look forward to that and say, if that happens, what’s the correct response?” Mayor Terry Schneider said. “It’s always a balancing act.”
Unlike cities that chose grid systems or made smaller lots the standard (typical lots in Minneapolis, for instance, are about one-tenth of an acre), Minnetonka has mostly half-acre lots that preserved the topography and wooded areas with rural-like curvy roads and pockets of available land wedged into neighborhoods. Of nine large infill lots left, Community Development Director Julie Wischnack said there are only three or four that are likely to be developable.
“Infill projects are more challenging,” Schneider said. “You probably can’t please everybody.”
Park Valley Estates
Near Minnetonka Boulevard and Interstate 494, developer Curt Fretham asked more than a year ago to built 10 homes on three acres tucked into a neighborhood. He bumped it down to seven, then six homes. Now, the City Council has asked him to come back with a five-lot plan for “Park Valley Estates.”
Over time, Fretham said that he’s adjusted plans to meet concerns such as reducing grading, the number of retaining walls and trees that will be removed at 3609 Park Valley Rd.
“I’m trying to be respectful of the neighbors’ concerns, and I think we’ve showed that,” he told the council June 24.
Weispfenning, who has lived in her 1950s home on a nearly one-acre lot for 28 years, still isn’t pleased with the plan, but acknowledges that it was inevitable that the secluded wooded area nearby would be developed.
“It’s a compromise between us and the developer,” she said of the five-lot plan. Fretham said he had tried to address one of the city’s goals of diversifying housing with more smaller homes. But now, with the city and residents supporting fewer lots, that means, he said, that there will be larger homes.
“The direction we’re getting [from the city] is not exactly clear,” he said. “You give people bigger lots and they tend to demand bigger homes.”
Woods of Fairview
The same thing happened about two miles away.
Between Hwy. 7 and Excelsior Boulevard, Fretham proposed subdividing a 3-acre site at 4415 Fairview Av. into seven lots. But residents opposed the lot sizes — 14,000 square feet to 21,000 square feet. (The city’s norm is 22,000-square-foot lots, but it has allowed 15,000-square-foot lots.)
Fretham returned to the city June 24 with a plan that got unanimous approval: five lots but with bigger lots ranging from 22,000 square feet to about 23,500 square feet.
“The council tends to listen to the neighborhood groups in Minnetonka,” he said. “It just means that we’re putting up a different product — instead of putting up smaller homes, we’re putting up larger homes.”
But resident Debora Terrell said she’s glad it’s five homes instead of squeezing in seven. She’s still worried, however, that she’ll have draining issues in her rambler’s back yard when the wooded hill there becomes two-story homes.
“We’re not wanting to live at a bottom of a lake if it does fail,” she said. “These are going to be large homes and we didn’t gain anything in terms of preserving trees.”
Hwy. 7 medical building
Residents have also organized in a neighborhood off Hwy. 7, but this time, against a business, not residential, plan.
Davis Real Estate Services Group wants to turn four homes and three businesses into a 68,600-square-foot medical building housing North Memorial Clinic, a pharmacy, urgency care facility and specialty care providers. But rezoning the area and building the two-story building, residents say, is too drastic a change for their neighborhood.
“We appreciate development; we just don’t want it in our faces,” said Byoung Lee-Gilligan, who lives across the street from the proposed site.
The city agreed, telling the developer to come back next Monday with downsized plans that increase the buffer between homes and the building. The neighborhood, Lee-Gilligan said, will “grudgingly” endorse it because it pushes the building closer to Hwy. 7, away from their street, Highwood Drive, and reduces the size to 64,000 square feet.
“I hate that it’s that big, but I’m trying to compromise too,” she said, adding about the 200 people on the neighborhood’s e-mail list: “They’re very emotional; this is where people are raising their families.”
Neighbor Molly Ekstrand said they’re glad their input helped shape the revisions, and hopes the city continues to involve neighborhoods for future developments.
“Minnetonka really has a PR problem when it comes to development,” she said. “By and large, I really want to encourage the city to engage residents early on.”
At City Hall, Wischnack said the council has a “strong inclusionary process” of gathering public input and had a series of meetings on all the proposals. She and developer Mark Davis praised residents for getting involved. In fact, Davis said it’s the most resident reaction they’ve received on any of their Twin Cities medical buildings.
“Give them credit; they put on a concerted effort and in the end, it works for the city, works for the neighborhood and works for us. It’s a win, win, win.”