For more than 50 years, the Jondahl family raised horses, sheep and chickens, grew corn, beans and berries on their farm in Minnetonka — all the while watching as Hwy. 394 and office complexes like the Carlson Towers sprang up around them.
Today the land is being readied for a crop of houses and condos.
The Jondahl farm, the last in the city, was sold this summer to a homebuilder who had eyed the plot for almost 20 years. It will be Minnetonka’s largest subdivision with single-family homes since the 1990s, according to Julie Wischnack, community development director.
“It was bittersweet,” said Ken Jondahl, son of Don and Leona Jondahl. Leona had lived there alone after Don died in 1999. When she died in 2007, Ken said he and his siblings decided it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, to sell.
The 24-acre farm was one of a dwindling number, not on the fringes, but closer inside the metro area — holes in the blanket of urban sprawl. Others that still exist include a sheep farm that’s a 10-minute walk from the Mall of America and an Eagan corn and soybean farm that has had Lockheed Martin as a neighbor.
The postrecession building boom has ignited housing developers’ interest in farmsteads like the one in Minnetonka. More than 16,000 housing permits have been issued in the metro area since the end of 2010, according to the Builders Association of the Twin Cities.
Earlier this year, a 40-acre farm bracketed by houses on a busy stretch in Plymouth passed to a large, national builder. In 2012 the last farm in an area of Brooklyn Park where family farmers had owned their land for more than 100 years went to a builder with plans for 88 homes.
Meanwhile, at the Woodbury family farm of Betty and Wayne Schilling on Saturday, tractors, cultivators, big round hay bales, grain bins and farm buildings were sold off under the singsong drone of an auctioneer. The Schillings, whose family has been there for five generations, began farming more than 40 years ago and are the last of those farming pioneers from the mid-1850s.
The land around the last 130 acres of the farm has now been opened up for development and 6,000 homes are expected to be built in the next decade. Their land is near an “urban village” that will include a grocery store, senior housing and other developments.
The demand for new homes has driven up land prices, which tanked during the downturn. Even with tax breaks for agricultural land through Minnesota’s Green Acres program, the opportunity for many farmland owners has become hard to resist, according to John Adams, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society.
“When it becomes more profitable to grow houses than grow corn, people grow houses,” Adams said.
It also can bolster the tax rolls of cities, counties and other public entities. The Jondahl farm sold for about $6 million and had a taxable value of less than $350,000 because of its agricultural classification. Wischnack estimates that the taxable value will top $50 million after the subdivision is built.
By 2030, agricultural land is expected to still account for a quarter of the seven-county area’s total acreage, but the vast majority will be on the outskirts, according to the Metropolitan Council. Farmland is projected to be less than 5 percent of the total acreage in Hennepin County, only 3 percent in Anoka County and less than 1 percent in Ramsey County.
“Some people just aren’t ready to sell, but if a developer comes along they have a hard decision to make,” said Tom Evenson of Gonyea Land Co. in Woodbury. “Does it really make sense to fight growth? People want new places to live, new places to shop, new restaurants.”
Emotional attachment is a big reason some are slow to sell, said Barry Stock, city administrator in Savage. A major farm landowner in that largely built-out community has been slowly selling pieces to developers, including one plot this year by City Hall and the town’s sports dome. “He has difficulty letting go. His ancestors made their living off it,” Stock said.
The Jondahls didn’t depend on their farm to live. The family moved there from Minneapolis — where Don worked as an insurance executive — to instill a love of the outdoors in the children, Jondahl said.
Even so, the farm’s animals weren’t just pets. Jondahl and his siblings slaughtered chickens for family meals. Sheep eventually were sold to what a family friend called “Camp Lamb Chop.” Some of what they grew was sold, often to wealthy families who lived around Lake Minnetonka.
Jondahl said the recession delayed plans to sell the farm, but even after the homebuilding market rebounded, it took time for the family and city to agree on development plans.
“The process of finding the right developer took some time. They didn’t do this overnight,” said Wischnack, who recalled pulling on galoshes to go out to the farm in sloppy weather for family meetings.
Wischnack said the city sought medium density, with a mix of housing types. The Jondahls envisioned single-family homes on large lots to preserve open space and trees.
Edina homebuilder Ron Clark said his firm, one of several interested in the property, came up with 23 site plans before arriving at one that satisfied both the city and the family. The development now calls for small single-family homes, twinhomes, three 20-unit condo buildings and a public park and trail.
Evenson, whose firm is marketing one of two remaining farms in Eagan, said it’s not unusual for buyers, sellers and cities to have trouble getting on the same page. In 2001, Eagan denied a land-use change allowing Evenson’s listing to be sold for a Target-anchored retail project. At the time, Eagan’s long-term plan envisioned the plot as part of corporate campus zone for Lockheed Martin, Unisys and Delta Air Lines.
All three have left or downsized. Last year the city agreed to allow apartments and medical offices on the land after a developer proposed buying it for a mixed-use project. Those plans are pending.
Owners of the Kelley Farm in Bloomington sued the city and Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in 2010, claiming zoning changes and airport expansion had hurt their ability to sell the land for development. This May, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to consider their appeal of a ruling dismissing the suit, which had sought to have the city or MAC take the property by eminent domain.
For now, sheep continue to graze on the 60 acres in the shadow of the mall and glitzy new Radisson Blu Hotel. City officials said they have received no development plans. Attorneys for the owners did not respond to interview requests.
Some outer ring suburbs have identified zones to keep as farmland as part of larger efforts to preserve open space. Chaska has a “greenbelt” around the city’s edge with farmland. “It gives us an identity when you enter the community, more than just crossing the border from one suburb to another,” said Kevin Ringwald, director of planning and development. Lake Elmo’s goal is for a mix of uses but still maintaining its rural character.
Jondahl said there were times when family members sometimes wondered if selling the farm was the right thing.
“But it wasn’t what it once was. All the traffic noise now — it’s kind of like it was just next door,” he said.
“In the end we worked together as a family to leave behind a beautiful place, something we could be proud of when we walked away.”
Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723