In an unusual imposition of discipline, the city of Minnetonka has put a lid on parking lot expansion at Minnetonka High School until school officials come up with a strategy for managing growing student demand for parking.

School officials say that the lack of parking spaces prompts students to park off campus, and that that creates safety concerns because they are walking along busy roads, often in bad weather.

City Council members acknowledged there's a parking shortage and last week agreed to allow the school to add 27 spaces on its east side where no trees would have to be removed. But the city said no to the school's original request for 102 more spaces as well as its revised request for 60 spaces because they would have required cutting as many as 110 trees, as well as some fill work and retaining walls.

After past expansion of the high school "in a very sensitive way'' on its site overlooking Hwy. 7, "now they are in the edges and going further into the woods and down the slope and needing more fill,'' said Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider. The city has begun to ask how much expansion is reasonable, and it wants school officials to take a hard look at the question, he said. "I don't think they have really thought through all the options.''

The city suggested several other options: Requiring students to carpool with at least three students per car (two is the current minimum); making use of a parking lot near the school's athletic dome and softball fields; buying a parking lot off campus and shuttling students to school, and assessing how open enrollment contributes to the parking pinch. The high school has about 280 open-enrolled students who typically drive to school.

City Council Member Bob Ellingson urged the district to look for ways to reduce automobile use and parking in general. "It's easy to say we have a lot of traffic, we have a lot of cars, so let's keep adding parking."

Least number of spaces

But Minnetonka High School Principal Dave Adney said the school has the least number of parking spaces of any high school in the area.

"It's a safety issue,'' he said. "This is about young people and trying to make sure they are safe and taken care of.'' Some students park blocks away at a Kmart parking lot, and it would be safer if students did not park off campus, Adney said.

"When it gets to be 20 below, and at twilight when kids have to cross the roads, then we do worry.''

For the 2,800 students at Minnetonka High, the school has 493 student parking places. Figuring two per car, that means about a third of the students drive or ride to school, said Paul Bourgeois, executive director of Minnetonka School District finance and operations.

Parking permits, which cost $250, go first to seniors, then to juniors and, if there are any left, to sophomores. Most sophomore drivers wind up parking on the frontage road to Hwy. 7, which has no sidewalk -- a practice that school officials consider unsafe.

Council members were not convinced that expanding the parking lot by 60 spaces would solve that problem, however.

Lots vs. trees

They also were concerned about losing trees.

Adding 102 spaces to the west parking lot, as originally proposed, would have required cutting 110 trees, including 36 the city considers "significant'' and nine it views as "high-priority." Adding 60 spaces would have required removing about 40 trees.

The 102-space expansion also would have involved installing parking on what is now a steep slope, which would have required retention walls measuring 2 to 10 feet high and "not in keeping with the general appearance of neighboring properties,'' the city planning staff said.

Adney said it's troubling for the school to be portrayed as "not good guardians of the site."

"We are all environmentalists. We don't want anyone to think that parking lots are more important than trees.''

The school district had planned to replant trees and put in a row of 20- to 30-foot pine trees as a buffer.

The school campus today is no larger than the 95 acres it occupied in the 1950s, the city report notes. But over time, buildings and parking lots have been added.

Residents living near the school opposed the parking lot expansion and objected to the loss of trees, noise, added traffic and more parking lot lights.

Council members were sympathetic to the neighbors and not inclined to allow more piecemeal expansion.

School officials "are not used to having the city say 'wait a minute, this isn't quite what we wanted,''' Schneider said. "It is a shift. We do try to be a partner with the school district.''

Asked for a reaction to the city directive, a school district spokeswoman said a traffic management plan adopted in 2004 remains in effect and the additional 27 spaces the city has approved do not require a new plan.

Schneider said he is sure school officials understood what the city expects. "I think we sent a strong message that before they come back for the next expansion, they will have the work done.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711