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Excelsior City Council votes to require case-by-case approval for new or expanding homes

People who want to build or expand a house in Excelsior will need to get city approval on the design, under a new rule that is among the most restrictive development ordinances in Minnesota.

Under the new ordinance taking effect Oct. 1, the city’s Planning Commission will review each project and approve or deny the design, with input from an architect and neighbors who own property within 350 feet.

The 3-2 council vote follows years of local debate over the need for strict zoning rules to preserve the look and feel of older residential areas in Excelsior, a Lake Minnetonka city of 2,400 that measures only one square mile.

Its neighborhoods include around 450 houses from different eras, some dating back to the 1800s. The eclectic mix is considered by many a key element of the lakeshore city’s charm and character.

Residents have complained that some newly built homes and additions loom over neighboring properties, blocking their light and views. Some say the new structures don’t fit in with surrounding houses in scale or structure.

Under the ordinance passed Monday night, projects will be reviewed using “Good Neighbor Guidelines,” a set of criteria for building homes compatible with neighboring houses.

In addition to size and setback provisions, the guidelines recommend front porches, breezeways, upper-level half stories and other design elements to mitigate a bulky-looking house and large expanses of blank walls.

Proponents of the ordinance said standardized zoning requirements such as height and setback don’t work in Excelsior because the city’s properties vary widely by age, size and other characteristics.

Opponents argued that case-by-case reviews are too subjective and raise the possibility or perception of bias, potentially triggering lawsuits.

They also say strict size limitations will tamp down the city’s rapidly growing property values, since smaller houses won’t increase in value as fast as existing large houses.

“So economically, the rich get richer and small homeowners lose,” said Dan Brattland, who is moving into an older house in Excelsior. “It’s a simple fact that the size of a house that can be built on a particular lot affects the value on that lot.”

The need for potential buyers to win approval under the new ordinance will leave them fearing the city will reject their plans to enlarge a house, said Council Member Dale Kurschner, who voted against the measure.

“These changes will make it impossible for anyone to know what they can do when thinking about buying or building a home here,” he said.

Council Member Jennifer Caron, who voted for the ordinance, argued that property values won’t be harmed by an ordinance protecting residents from objectionable construction near their property.

Both sides also disagreed on whether the ordinance will help or harm personal relationships in the community.

“To me, the most important aspect to Excelsior’s character is whether we all care about each other enough to get to know one another, listen to differing viewpoints and welcome newcomers,” Kurschner said. “In recent years, instead of working and living together, Excelsior became a town of fighting each other.”

But Caron said she expects the ordinance to actually improve relationships among neighbors.

“I think it’s important that we care about all of them — both the neighbors that are going to have a new home next to them as well as the person who’s building something,” she said. “Nobody wants to move in somewhere and have a problem with their neighbors.”

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