Beneath Mendota Heights’ upscale, verdant exterior brews a development battle over the construction of two new apartment buildings.

Two 70-unit, market-rate apartment buildings are scheduled for construction on Hwy. 13, south of Acacia Boulevard, on a 5.5-acre site formerly occupied by the Mendota Motel and Larson Garden Center.

City officials say the project will vastly improve the area, which once featured a seedy motel. But some residents say its density will overwhelm the site and that the city violated a laundry list of its own ordinances to make it happen.

Five longtime Mendota Heights residents allege in a lawsuit that they, along with all other residents, are “severely aggrieved and damaged” by the city’s plans. Among their complaints: the project’s size, limited parking, reduced setbacks, wetland proximity and large quantities of paved surfaces run counter to city ordinances.

Council Member Ultan Duggan also raised concerns about what he called violations of city ordinances and the added traffic the project would bring.

“Are there buildings that will work on the site? Sure there are. A little bit smaller, but will work,” Duggan said. “They don’t need any of these variances.”

Duggan described the lawsuit residents filed to halt the project “damning” and said their demands are “not unreasonable.” He said he worries that the project will set a precedent, making it harder to say no to future projects that seek to break the city’s rules.

The City Council voted 3-2 Nov. 21 to approve the project, regardless. The city, responding to the residents’ lawsuit, contends that the court lacks jurisdiction because the plaintiffs aren’t personally “aggrieved parties.”

In addition, Tim Benetti, Mendota Heights’ community development director, said cities have more leeway under ordinary planning strictures when they create a Planned Unit Development, a zoning classification allowing cities to combine multiple kinds of properties — housing with commercial, for instance — within one plan.

“When it comes to PUDs, there’s a lot of flexibility and discretionary decisionmaking that goes back to the council,” Benetti said.

Michael Swenson, who heads the contractor Michael Development, wants to break ground on the project as soon as possible.

Swenson said he’s worked on other PUD projects and Mendota Heights followed a similar process to the other cities. He said he expects the apartment project will proceed.

“The city did nothing that was out of line here,” Swenson said.

‘A little gem’

Mendota Heights hasn’t built new, market-rate apartments since the 1990s, city officials said, though senior housing and townhouses have gone up since then. Builders are currently finishing Mendota Plaza, a 139-unit apartment building southeast of the Hwy. 110 and Hwy. 149 intersection. It is set to open in May 2018.

Bernard Friel, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a retired lawyer, said he’s confident the proposed apartment buildings won’t get built as planned.

The City Council didn’t meet ordinance requirements for PUDs on less than 10 acres, Friel said, so one shouldn’t have been created.

Friel said the plaintiffs driving the lawsuit aren’t against development — just this project, which they say is too large.

A nearby townhouse association called Augusta Shores also objects. The group’s grievances range from traffic to a lack of government transparency.

Members of the association say the structures will change the character of Mendota Heights, which they called a “first-ring oasis community that has largely avoided the elevated crime and social services problems found in high-density transient housing.”

The apartments are better than the motel, some officials said, which was operational until October.

Mayor Neil Garlock, formerly the police chief, said the property had been “a blight for years,” racking up 241 police calls over four years.

But Duggan said the community’s concerns are being ignored, and the city is getting little in return for its concessions.

“The city is losing in relation to its spaciousness, its graciousness,” Duggan said. “[Mendota Heights is] a little gem that’s bound to be discovered eventually but that doesn’t mean we have to be destroyed.”