Last weekend, Paul Nelson and his 2-year-old grandson spotted a woolly bear caterpillar on the gravel road outside their house. The two dropped to the ground and watched the creature inch down the traffic-free road.

Nelson and his family have lived on Inver Grove Heights’ Akron Avenue since the late 1970s. The area, lush with old oaks and towering pines, has largely resisted development. But now, plans to pave and expand Akron Avenue threaten to change that.

“It really is going to destroy the entire area out here,” said Jenny Wheeler, a longtime resident who, like Nelson, stands to lose her house to the project.

This is the second time in about a year that a quiet road in a tight-knit Inver Grove Heights neighborhood has been targeted for an upgrade — part of an overall effort to brace for growth around the south metro.

Reconstruction and paving of Akron Avenue has been on city and county to-do lists for more than a decade, said Brian Sorenson, assistant county engineer for Dakota County.

The project includes portions in Inver Grove Heights and Rosemount. Though growth may someday warrant a four-lane road, Sorenson said, the plan for now is to expand Akron Avenue to two lanes in 2018.

“We’re not at this point talking about building a four-lane road,” he said. “What we’re saying is, if the growth happens as has been planned by the cities, then at some point in the future we’re going to be pushing the need for four lanes.”

A familiar fight

Last winter, Inver Grove Heights residents living along Argenta Trail united against a road realignment that could have meant the loss of up to 10 houses. On Akron Avenue, three houses may be removed.

The circumstances that led to the Argenta Trail realignment were different from those now facing Akron residents, but worries about losing the neighborhood’s character were the same.

“It’s disheartening to see,” said Kyle Van, who lives on Argenta Trail and became an unofficial spokesman for residents there. “You do your research and look at what you want for your own life when you pick a house, and then after you select something, to have it fundamentally changed is very unfortunate.”

Argenta Trail residents eventually received approval for a road design they created themselves.

The neighbors on Akron are hopeful the county might do the same for them, choosing a design that would put a road through buffer land owned by Flint Hills Resources.

“We’re not saying ‘Not in my backyard,’ ” Nelson said. “We’re saying, ‘There’s an alternative over there.’ ”

Sorenson said the resident design, which is similar to one of the alternatives Dakota County has put forward, is being reviewed.

Akron Avenue is one of the metro area’s last gravel roads, a testament to the fact that Inver Grove Heights has remained relatively undeveloped while its neighboring suburbs have grown.

“You see the Lakevilles and the Farmingtons and places like that that have been exploding over the past few decades,” said Van, who grew up in Inver Grove Heights. “Inver Grove seemed to be a little more stable until recently.”

The city’s long-term plan doesn’t include major changes to its most rural areas, said Council Member Rosemary Piekarski Krech. But that’s not a permanent guarantee.

“Could it [change] in the future? Lord, yes,” she said. “Any council could come along and make any of the changes they want.”