It's tree protection versus property rights in Minnetonka.

Bowing to landowners who say saving trees would reduce the number of lots they could sell for new homes, the City Council has backed away from a strict tree preservation ordinance designed to save 75 percent of the old, quality trees in new subdivisions.

Unwilling to approve the ordinance at its July 14 meeting -- after two years of studying the issue -- council members will consider new wording on Aug. 11 that is kinder to property owners.

The council's caution on the tree ordinance is tied to residents' resounding rejection of the city's proposed shoreline ordinance late last year. In that case, the city wanted to protect water quality by requiring lake- and creek-front homeowners to line their shorelines with native plants when they remodeled or rebuilt waterfront homes. Residents turned out by the hundreds to oppose that proposal.

The message was "we were reaching too far and asking too much," said Council Member Brad Wiersum. "I want to be sure that we don't make that same mistake with the tree ordinance. At the end of the day, I believe in the sacredness of property rights.''

Origins of the ordinance

Work on the tree ordinance began in 2005, after council members were shocked to find the city was powerless to stop a developer from clearing some rolling wooded property for the Crosby Cove development.

Council members asked the developer to use creative design and construction to save trees, "and he adamantly refused, even to the point of getting his lawyer involved saying you can't make me do it," said City Attorney Desyl Peterson said.

After that, council members asked for more tools to protect trees.

City staff members proposed an ordinance focused specifically on subdivisions because open-lot development is threatening what remains of the shady canopy provided by the city's original forest, said Natural Resource Director Jo Colleran.

The ordinance would apply to 1,250 acres of "woodland preservation areas'' -- parcels of land that are at least 2 acres in size and contain remnants of the city's earliest tree cover. The ordinance also would apply to healthy individual trees 15 inches or more in diameter, which would be defined as "high priority.'' Both categories could include oaks that are more than 200 years old, Colleran said.

Although Minnetonka's standard lot size is half an acre, the ordinance seeks to save trees by requiring a 1-acre lot any time that development threatens to remove more than 25 percent of a woodland protection area or more than 35 percent of a lot's high priority trees.

The idea is that a full acre would provide enough space for trees and houses and roads.

But that could reduce the number of lots a landowner could sell.

The costs of preservation

Charles LeFevere, who recently won city approval for a new 4.2-acre, five-lot subdivision called Coyote Song, told the council that "the number of lots in a subdivision is of critical importance to a landowner.''

George MacGibbon said his property on Timberline Road is entirely within the proposed tree preservation area. "I agree 100 percent with the philosophy of saving trees, but I feel I am losing some control the way it is going.''

In recognition of property owners' rights, the ordinance says developers who are willing to work with the city and use creative design and construction methods to save trees can work back to half- acre lots.

This is the provision that City Council members have asked the staff to strengthen in the revision to be considered Aug. 11.

Council Member Tony Wagner has said that he is still looking for an ordinance that would prevent a case like Crosby Cove from happening again, because citizens are asking the city to preserve the feeling of their neighborhoods.

"When we see a subdivision of land going in and the big old oak trees are going down to accommodate new housing, that is when we hear from residents that our neighborhood is changing because you are allowing all these oak trees to be removed," Colleran said.

"This ordinance is trying to strike a balance between allowing development and protecting neighborhood character, and it is a difficult thing to achieve.''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711