Nathaniel and Trisha Gray thought they’d found their dream house.
Hidden at the end of a winding Savage road flanked by woods and dotted with estate-size homes, the house is everything they wanted: It’s close to the city, but isolated enough that there’s space to keep their two horses.
But now, in the wake of adamant opposition to a stable they wanted to build, the Grays have decided to put the house on the market and get out of town.
“We need to find a place that’ll be more receptive to our lifestyle,” Nathaniel Gray said.
In metro-fringe cities like Savage, where development has transformed the once-rural landscape, tension can arise between neighbors who want different things from the pastoral character that drew them there.
For the Grays, that tension culminated in a unanimous City Council vote denying the variances needed to build the stable. An otherwise dry matter of acreage and property lines became emotional and complex amid neighbors’ worries about how the stable and horses would affect the area.
“It just kind of made a confusing mess of, ‘What exactly are we asking, and what exactly are you asking of us?’ ” Nathaniel Gray said.
The nature of the Grays’ land complicated the process. Old trees and steep slopes make it impossible to build a stable in the back yard — a spot that wouldn’t require city approval — so they planned for the front yard, where they have an enclosed grazing area that has already housed their horses. Even with a stable, they said, the horses would continue to be boarded elsewhere some of the time.
Still, the front yard is close to neighbors, and a stable there would require three different variances.
Planning Commission Chair Sharon Allen said that if those variances were approved, they’d remain permanently with the property. So “if the Grays would move, the new owner would be able to have stables in the front yard,” she said. “So it would kind of be like a forever thing.”
Longtime Savage residents remember a time when horses and other farm animals were more common than they are today.
The city is named for Marion Savage, who owned the legendary racehorse Dan Patch. Today, that heritage is everywhere: The Dan Patch Historical Society; Dan Patch Days; Dan Patch Lane; Dan Patch Drive, and the city logo featuring an image of a horse and cart.
Mayor Janet Williams, who has lived in Savage her whole life, said there were never many commercial stables in the area. There were a lot of dairy farms, though.
“In the early days, of course, you farmed with teams of horses,” she said.
Allen, who has also spent her life in Savage, said horses were more common in the area when she was a child. But that changed with development.
“Based on Savage’s location and the development here that we’ve had, there’s just not a lot of area that can have horses,” she said.
Scott County Commissioner Joe Wagner said the economic recovery — and the development it’s bringing — has opened the floodgates on these kinds of disagreements throughout the county. And often, it comes down to relationships between neighbors.
At a June 19 public hearing, property owners adjacent to the Grays expressed concerns about everything from possible overgrazing and issues with waste storage to the potential roadblocks when they try to sell their homes.
A lot of opposition came from residents at a nearby townhome development. Townhome association treasurer Joe Michels said residents were concerned about how things like waste runoff, smell and noise might affect the neighborhood, where leisure time is often spent outdoors.
At an Aug. 7 planning commission meeting, Michels told commissioners that the Grays’ property line is about 150 feet from the development.
“I realize that the horses are going to be a little bit farther away,” he said, “but it’s very, very close.”
Nathaniel Gray attributes opposition to the stable to an overall climate shift in Savage — what he sees as a move toward a more urbanized environment.
“Like Bloomington-lite,” he said.
The Grays bought their house because the area is zoned to allow for horses.
Savage requires two acres for one horse and one acre for each additional horse, up to five. With about 3.5 acres of land, the Grays just qualify.
Michels said the townhome association is going to informally recommend that the city change its acreage rules to include the word “grazeable.” With that caveat, a property like the Grays’, with its steep back yard slopes included in the 3.5 acres, wouldn’t qualify.
“I think the city was unprepared to deal with this,” Michels said.
The Grays are now looking on the outer edges of the metro for a place to relocate with their two young sons — somewhere like Jordan, Belle Plaine or Minnetrista. Nathaniel Gray said the whole experience was confusing and frustrating and has diminished his faith in government.
“People are not prepared sometimes for the bureaucracy that gets thrown at them,” Wagner said.