The allure of Excelsior’s quaint and vintage neighborhoods is reigniting a battle between residents who want to preserve the city’s modest charm and newcomers who want to build big.

City officials are considering several proposals intended to preserve Excelsior’s character that could also give it the toughest residential zoning regulations in Minnesota, a move that could deter new development.

One proposal includes a powerful review board that could reject proposed construction it deems inappropriate. Case-by-case consideration is needed because “zoning ordinances really don’t address all the unique situations,” said Bruce Noll, a Planning Commission member who sat on the review board design committee.

Officials are weighing a proposal to limit the size of a new home based on lot size. This type of ordinance is not uncommon, being applied in Minneapolis, among others.

But opponents fear the review board’s decisions would be inconsistent and unfair, and that Excelsior’s proposed new-home size limits could drive down values of small existing homes and inflate that of larger ones. The value of the city’s smaller houses is almost entirely based on their location near Lake Minnetonka.

“With most of these properties, the dirt is worth more than the house,” said Dan Brattland, an Eden Prairie resident who owns property in Excelsior and is preparing to move there.

For many residents, however, the city is engaged in a struggle for its soul.

“We’re trying to hold on with dear life to our sense of place, our uniqueness,” said Jane Bauman, a 26-year Excelsior resident. “That’s why we live here, that’s why we love it and we don’t want to lose it.”

A group called Excelsior Forever has collected almost 500 signatures on a petition favoring the review board, as well as a set of rules called “Good Neighbor Guidelines” that would limit the shape and scale of a new house, regulating roofs, windows, garage locations and other features.

Supporters insist these proposals would not prohibit large homes, just require “highly creative design that reduces the perception of bulk.”

“It’s less about how big the house actually is and how big the house appears,” said Tim Caron, a member of the city’s Heritage Preservation Board.

Longing for the past

On the other side is Excelsior United, a group that opposes the review board and believes it would make unfair and inconsistent decisions. Former City Council Member John Beattie was the lone member of the committee that developed the review board who in the end opposed establishing it.

“I thought it was way too subjective,” he said. “Somebody could say, well, you know, this thing just doesn’t look like it fits in.”

For the past couple of decades newcomers have been flocking to Excelsior, a square-mile city of 2,300 on the shores of Minnetonka. Affluent buyers razed or remodeled smaller houses and replaced them with bigger ones, leading to complaints from longtime residents that some of the big new homes towered over the town’s cottages, some more than a century old.

City officials have fiddled with Excelsior’s construction rules for the past couple of years, trying to ban large new homes that block views or just “don’t fit in.”

In 2018, they imposed a moratorium on teardowns while devising a set of stricter limits on height and setback. But those new rules didn’t go far enough, many residents say.

For some, a desire to keep Excelsior from changing is rooted in nostalgia for the days when the city was affordable for middle-class and working-class families. In 1990, according to the Metropolitan Council, Excelsior’s median home value was just over $200,000 in today’s dollars, roughly the same as the median throughout the metro area. Today, the median value of an Excelsior’s home is $554,000, more than double the metro area’s $242,000.

Brattland used a sample of small Excelsior houses from the real estate website Zillow to calculate that the proposed construction rules would cause the market values of small houses to plunge while the value of large houses already built would soar. The result, he said, would widen Excelsior’s already growing wealth gap.

Tom Knowlton has mixed feelings. He and his wife bought their Excelsior home in 1967, a modest farmhouse built around 1900 a few blocks from Lake Minnetonka. They paid $17,000 then; today’s online real estate sites estimate it’s worth more than $600,000, a figure not unusual in their neighborhood.

Knowlton, 83, sometimes misses the old days when, he said, “the fanciest car in town was a Pontiac.” They can’t afford the boutiques that replaced the five-and-dime stores. But he’s realistic about change.

“Things were simpler back then,” Knowlton said. “But you can’t go back.”