Armed with a well-thumbed copy of the city code and a trusty pair of construction boots, Minnesota's first city teardown enforcement official has started duty in Edina.
After three weeks on the job, Cindy Larson has discovered that the position is as much counselor as enforcer, dealing with upset residents and builders who see a new sheriff driving the black Crown Victoria with Edina's city seal on the side.
Larson, a petite woman with a background in construction, is soft-spoken but firm.
"I have no problem mixing pearls and steel-toed boots," she said last week.
Edina hired their "residential redevelopment coordinator" because the city is a hot spot for developers who demolish small homes and replace them with bigger ones. Last year that happened more than 100 times, setting a record. So far this year, 52 permits for demolition of single-family detached homes have been issued.
Construction work in some neighborhoods is intense, creating tensions beyond concerns about house size. Unsure who to call, Edina residents have been peppering city departments from police to planning with complaints about dirt, parking, noise, congestion and alleged code violations.
So City Manager Scott Neal suggested the city create a one-stop shop for both residents and builders by creating a city job that deals only with teardown issues. Larson's $70,616 salary is paid for by a price increase for demolition permits.
The job has been intense, Larson said. Parking is the top complaint, followed by process questions, and then noise and drainage issues. Some residents are angry when they call, and Larson can't always fix the situation.
A complaint about the volume of a radio that construction workers were listening to got the city out to measure decibels, but the volume was within legal limits. Neighbors also have complained about routine construction noise like nail guns and saws.
But Larson can make builders move vehicles or supplies that block driveways or litter streets. Last week, trusses for a new house were left in the street. Larson had a city ordinance to point to when she told the builder that the lumber had to be moved onto the construction site.
The trusses "were taking up a good area, and when I talked with the builder, he was unaware of the rules and quite unhappy," she said. When she told him the trusses had to move, he replied that the lot was small.
"You need to be creative," she told him. As she left, the trusses were being moved.
"There are two sides to every story," Larson said. "A lot of builders are very receptive. I worked for a builder, and I know what they're trying to achieve … but there's been a little bit of pushback, too. They say, 'We've never had to do that before.'
"I say, "That's why I'm here.' "
Staying calm amid the chaos
Larson grew up in Rogers, the youngest of seven kids. Her father owned a trucking company and she said "construction runs in my blood." She became interested in government when she worked in her local city hall as a teenager. After majoring in community development at St. Cloud State University, she worked for a residential land development company and then at a bigger construction firm.
She said the Edina position interested her because she wanted to be "back in the heart of the neighborhood."
She sees herself not as an advocate for residents or builders, but as a city representative who enforces the rules.
"I feel I can stay level-headed and figure out the issue," she said. "I was told one reason I got the job was because I am personable and nonjudgmental. I will stay neutral and get a resolution."
Larson usually begins her days at City Hall, listening to voice mails, reading e-mails and searching city code for answers. She works closely with other departments, using their expertise to check allegations of erosion or excessive noise. Sometime during the day, she drives around, checking construction sites.
The vehemence of some of the complaints she's gotten has surprised her, Larson said. She always asks if residents have talked with the construction crew, and then goes to investigate herself.
"It's tough," she said. "Many of the calls are from people who are home during the day and hear the nail guns and the saws and see the dust."
But other calls are friendly. Sometimes people just need to vent, she said, and they tell her they appreciate that she is there to listen.
"I really want to help people who are upset, unsure or just confused," Larson said.