Above: The Linden Crossing condomium development in Linden Hills, which residents said was too big compared to its surrounding neighborhood.

It is a common refrain at public meetings on major developments in some parts of Minneapolis: This building will change the character of our neighborhood.

Soon, homeowners may have a new tool to define precisely what that character is – and fight back against proposals that clash with it. A new process for creating these so-called "conservation districts" cleared a key committee Thursday, along with protections to ensure the process isn't used too liberally.

The proposal by council member Cam Gordon was controversial when it emerged publicly this January. Some warned that it would be used as a tool to merely stifle development. But more defined language assuaged many critics, including the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors and Zoning and Planning Committee Chair Lisa Bender.

"I certainly would not be involved in this if I thought this was going to be a tool for NIMBYism gone wild," said council member Kevin Reich Thursday, referring to the acronym for "not-in-my-backyard." "I'm a pro-development council member. And this is a pro-development council."

Conservation districts cannot be used to save specific buildings, but rather preserve the "visual character, land use, or activity evident in [the area's] notable architectural detail, building type or development pattern." It is less cumbersome than a historic district, however, which can severely limit what alterations homeowners can make to their properties.

It may only address exterior building features and cannot prohibit uses otherwise allowed in the zoning code – except to regulate building bulk. So a district with some high-density zoning could not prohibit high-density developments, but the height and massing of a new apartment complex could be limited.

The districts must span at least two or more streets, with 75 percent of properties sharing the distinct characteristics. Interested residents would need to obtain consent from one-third of property owners in the district to begin the process, and two-thirds after it has been examined. The City Council has final say on whether districts are created, however.

"I think it could help us better and more planfully...grow our city in the right way by adding this little tool," said Gordon, whose constituents in Prospect Park had expressed interest in the idea. "I think it's appropriate that we just move into it slowly and we'll see how it goes next year."

To prevent a flood of applications from consuming tremendous staff time, the ordinance says no more than two applications may be considered in 2015. After that, no more than five may be considered simultaneously.

Council Member Lisa Goodman said she was supportive of the slower approach, since preservation can be a sticky issue among neighborhoods. She hoped the process would not become a tool for neighbors to fight with each other over things like siding material and brick color.

"Conserving visual character is subjective," Goodman said. "One person's visual character is different than another person's visual character."

Bender said she would support more design guidelines across the city. But in the interest of staff time, the most focus should be placed on high-growth commercial centers.

Some residents recently waged a fierce battle to stop demolition of a rooming house in Bender's ward – though staff determined it did not warrant historic designation –to build an apartment complex. A district would have only required consideration of whether the new development fits with the guidelines of the district before demolition could commence.

"This is a design guideline tool," Bender said. "And really not a tool that preserves buildings."

Julia Paranteau, public affairs director with the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, said they initially expressed concerns because the ordinance language was overly vague. They've since removed their opposition.

The ordinance must be approved by the full council next week before taking affect. No conservation districts will be considered in 2014, however.