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‘Protect Excelsior’ signs fight onslaught of development in tiny Lake Minnetonka town

August 11, 2018

The “Protect Excelsior” signs are popping up on lawns faster than the old homes are coming down in this charming Lake Minnetonka town.

Residents behind the movement say they are fighting to hold on to the character of the town, which has seen an explosion of growth from residents bringing in a more upscale feel.

For years, Excelsior has been treasured for its laid-back, affordable lake vibe. Now some residents fear it might become more like its flashier, glitzier neighbor across the bay, Wayzata.

“Excelsior is taking on a new look, and seems to be losing the authenticity and vintage charm. You can’t replicate that,” said Marla Mullaney, an artist whose “protect” sign sits in her front yard.

Twenty-five houses have been torn down and replaced in the past five years, a big number for a town of 2,225 that covers just one square mile.

The debate over teardowns isn’t the first clash over the pace and style of development. Residents have fought to preserve a traditional look for the town’s new library, the idea of a lakeside hotel has been batted away and a car dealership-turned strip mall sparked concerns about too many chains.

In this fall’s race for mayor and City Council, development has been front and center, with another building proposal already stirring debate.

Council Member Greg Miller understands that people want what the town has.

The neighborhood of eclectic, smaller homes is a short walk to the town’s main street, where people eat along sidewalk cafes and peruse antique and specialty shops. Families can buy ice cream and run around at the Commons, a large grassy area with a beach and baseball field. Lake Minnetonka can be seen from just about everywhere.

The dilemma, Miller said, is how to respect the views of the residents who have lived there for years and the newer citizens who are looking to call the city home.

“I wouldn’t say we lost the character of the city with what’s going on right now,” he said, saying the city has tried to strike a balance.

The City Council froze residential redevelopment last winter to give the city time to review and rewrite its single-family home zoning ordinances. The moratorium ended in early May, with changes aimed at keeping new homes smaller and fitting in with the neighborhood.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” he said.

One of the builders understands the desire to keep the charm. “People want their homes to fit in,” said Michael Hayes, owner of Michael Hayes Homes. “Most customers want to it to look like the neighborhood.”

For him, the city’s new rules are another layer to deal with. “It just makes it harder to build in Excelsior, but we have to just stay in the guidelines,” he said.

City Manager Kristi Luger said only one new permit to tear down and rebuild has been sought since the changes were implemented. The developer sought a variance, which the Planning Commission denied 7-0. It goes before the entire council on Aug. 20.

Not everyone is opposed to the development.

“My feeling is Excelsior is changing,” said Bill Damberg, owner of Brightwater clothing store on Water Street, which is the town’s main street. “And you cannot stop change.”

Damberg, who doesn’t live in the city, said he picked Water Street for his business eight years ago because of residents’ strong sense of community and a specific clientele.

“People move here because of the main street,” he said. “That’s what attracts them.”

But resident Joel Piontek didn’t bargain for construction noise for two years in a row.

“We wanted quiet,” said Piontek, who lives in a cottage-like house down the street from Mullaney. When the house across the street finished its remodel, the lot next door started being built. He doesn’t like the large new homes that dwarf everything around them.

“We want to keep Excelsior small and affordable. We don’t want to be like Wayzata,” he said. “If you want a big home move there or to Chanhassen.”

Across town to the east, near the town’s cemetery and police station, the next clash is brewing. Luger, the city manager, said the city is working to come up with a housing plan that appeals to residents in the area. It appears it will likely be low-rise housing, either single family homes or townhouses.

“Just when you think everything else has been developed because we’re only one square mile, something else pops up,” Luger said.

Meanwhile, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission is doing what it can to preserve the history of the city, which colonists from New York founded in 1853. It’s encouraging some homeowners to seek historic landmark designation of their homes, making them harder to demolish.

The home Hayes is building is near an empty lot two doors down from Molly Ruzicka’s childhood home.

Ruzicka said her father, who still lives in the house, has been asked to register it as a historic home — a way for residents to protect some of the city’s beauty. Ruzicka worries that would make it harder for her to sell when she inherits it.

“I’m torn,” she said.

For Piontek, the worry is losing what the community has held dear for years.

“The attraction is the vibrancy, the families with the kids,” he said, standing on his front porch. “As soon as prices get unaffordable, it kinda takes that vibrancy out.”

From her flower-filled front yard, Mullaney summed up her feelings: “You can’t manufacture charm, you cannot recreate it.”

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647 Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora

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