There’s a street corner in Excelsior where you can see five new houses, a couple of them still under construction, that replaced older demolished homes. Most are larger than the houses surrounding them. A nearby rambler is set to be razed soon.
“I want to stop the mega-mansions,” said Susan Pye Brokaw, who has lived in Excelsior most of her life. “They’re taking away the look of the village.”
Brokaw is among the many Excelsior residents who want to keep older houses in the tiny Lake Minnetonka city from being replaced by new construction, especially between the lake and Water Street, the main drag. That neighborhood features an eclectic mix of homes from various eras, some more than a century old.
In response, the Excelsior City Council last week approved an ordinance requiring new home construction to get prior approval from city officials on a case-by-case basis. It could be the most restrictive residential zoning ordinance in Minnesota.
Opponents call the new law too subjective, opening the city to potential lawsuits or accusations of bias if it doesn’t base approvals and denials on standardized rules.
“The city has now gone way further than I ever imagined,” said Ben Stedman, an eight-year resident who has been involved in local task forces studying the issue.
Stedman said the case-by-case approach “means in theory that a house can meet all the zoning laws, but still be denied. … This is massive government overreach meant to appease a handful of vocal residents.”
The city has spent years adjusting and tightening zoning restrictions without quelling complaints, said Cindy Busch, who served on the local Planning Commission for a decade before stepping down about a year ago.
“It seemed like no matter what we did, the developers would figure out a way to make a monster,” Busch said. “I knew that it was really splitting the town.”
The newer houses, while tending to be traditional in style, are often bigger than others nearby, reflecting the increase in median value of an Excelsior home from $286,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 2000 to about $554,000 eight years later. Some complain the new homes dwarf neighboring houses, obstruct residents’ views or just don’t look right in their surroundings.
Decisions made under the new ordinance will be influenced by a set of architectural suggestions for home size and structures. The Planning Commission, which will review the proposals, could potentially approve a house situated among larger homes but deny the same house if others around it are smaller. Residents within 350 feet of the property, as well as a city architect, will be asked for input.
The criteria are known as the “Good Neighbor Guidelines.” The title suggests that the city hopes to patch up divisions among its 2,400 residents. But some fear it will only widen them.
Jule Coughlan has seen the controversy from the other side. Charmed by Excelsior’s natural beauty, local festivals and the easy walk to a downtown of shops and restaurants, Coughlan and her husband Jay moved there from Eden Prairie three years ago.
They found a house they loved, a 5,000-square-foot Dutch colonial overlooking the Commons, the city’s big lakeside park, and bought it from a developer who had torn down a previous house to build it. They were eager to take part in small-town civic and social life, but soon discovered that might not be as easy as they’d thought.
“Two neighbors that I’d never met before came up to me and said, ‘You don’t need this big of a house,’ ” Jule said. “I said, ‘Excuse me? You don’t know me. You don’t know what I need.’ ”
Jule Coughlan is involved in a group working on beautifying the Commons, but she said she often senses a chilliness among longtime residents: people who don’t respond when she says “Hi,” a neighbor who told her it was “the saddest day of my life” when a nearby house was torn down.
“There’s so much hostility against us newbies — they think we’re trying to come in big and bad,” she said.
Bob Bolles, a retired local businessman who has served on the City Council and the Heritage Preservation Commission, said Excelsior “has been struggling to find the right ordinance to solve the city’s problems” for decades. He hopes this one is the answer. But the cycle of controversy and zoning changes tends to repeat itself every few years, he said, quoting that famous line attributed to Lincoln: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
In Excelsior, Bolles said, “That is so, so true.”