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Last update: April 12, 2007 9:39 PM

Splitting up lots creating ill will

Tougher restrictions could slow the rush to divide older, large single-family lots.

By Mary Lynn Smith, Star Tribune

Art Mueller has meticulously tended his wooded 2 acres in Roseville since he built his house there in 1949. But his plan to carve out a cul-de-sac along Acorn Road so he can divide his property into four lots has some neighbors up in arms.

Mueller says he wants to make the most of his property's prime real estate value, but his critics say he will destroy the rural setting of their neighborhood. "It's created some bad feelings," said Mueller, 82, a plain-spoken real estate developer who will keep one of the four newly created lots for his house and sell the other three. "People just don't like change."

It's a neighborhood feud that is erupting frequently in some of the more developed cities and suburbs in the metro area: Homeowners with larger tracts of land are chopping them up to maximize their land values.

The bottom line for Mueller is that it's his land and his project meets city code. But Roseville officials, wondering whether they need to slow down what is commonly called lot splitting, imposed a 90-day moratorium on subdivisions to study the issue; it expires at the end of April.

In the end, officials say, it's about finding the right balance between a homeowner's property rights and the rights of the neighborhood at large.

"There's not a lot of open land anymore," said Julie Wischnack, Minnetonka city planner. "And the land that is open is either a lake, a wetland or there's an interstate in the way."

Land rush

It's not just a suburban issue. In 2002, St. Paul received 56 applications to subdivide lots. The next year, that number jumped to 106 and then to 114 in 2005, said St. Paul planning administrator Larry Soderholm. When the real estate market softened last year, it dipped to 95 requests.

Minnetonka receives a steady steam of requests from homeowners who want to split their lots, Wischnack said.

"I see more self-development because people either are moving or retiring and they want to cash out," she said. "Very seldom will the homeowner continue to live in the house after they've subdivided [their land]."

Some cities, such as Bloomington, have passed restrictions to keep super-size houses from dwarfing older suburban homes. Those restrictions have reduced the number of subdivision requests, said Bob Hawbaker, Bloomington's planning manager.

Roseville has at least 100 large lots in the city that potentially could be divided into multiple home sites, said Jamie Radel, a city economic development official.

Roseville City Council Member Amy Ihlan said she wants to slow the pace of subdivision before the city loses all its larger lots, along with its green space and diversity of housing options.

"People will just move to the outer-ring suburbs to get the larger lots," Ihlan said.

A neighborhood divide

Mueller, who submitted his project before the Roseville moratorium, got preliminary approval and will probably receive final approval soon.

That's bad news for James Kilau, who bought the 2-acre lot next to Mueller's 16 years ago and said the proposed cul-de-sac would "ruin the whole atmosphere" of the neighborhood.

"I came here for the privacy of the whole neighborhood, not just my lot. And I paid a lot of money for that," Kilau said. "It's just a shame. I'll have to move farther out to find something like I have."

But Mueller said that if he didn't divide his lot, the next owner would. "Why not me? Why shouldn't I get the benefit?" he asked.

Mueller, whose father became Roseville's first mayor in 1948 after he and a group of farmers created the village, is proud of the neighborhood with its towering pines and turkeys, ducks, deer and pheasants.

"You would swear you were up north," said Mueller, who raised four children there. That probably won't change, he said.

Darrel LeBarron, a neighbor who supports Mueller's project and belongs to the Roseville advisory group that is studying lot subdivisions, said he may eventually want to subdivide his own 2-acre lot. He argues that the neighborhood's ponds and wetlands will naturally protect Acorn Road's ambiance.

"You don't build houses on muck," he said.

LeBarron, who has a vested interest in the outcome of the advisory group's study, wants to keep the status quo or reduce Roseville's relatively large 11,000-square-foot minimum lot size, which was set in the late 1950s.

"If we don't get lot sizes down, then we can kiss the school district goodbye because young families can't afford these large lots," LeBarron said. "Roseville is a first-ring suburb."

In Minnetonka, Leland and Lorraine Sorenson want to sell their house but have been frustrated in their attempts to split their acre-plus lot in two.

"We're just trying to maximize our land value," said Lorraine Swenson, 85, from her winter residence in Sun City West, Ariz.

But neighbors object and the city says the Sorensons' plan doesn't meet the minimum lot size requirements. David Nuckols, who lives next door on a half-acre parcel, said the plan would "crowd" him in.

"I wouldn't have bought this if I knew the lot would be divided. Or at least I wouldn't have paid the same amount that I paid," he said.

Back in Roseville, Mueller dismissed the critics.

"I don't care if someone likes me or not. I'm not hurting anyone," he said. "Everybody around here enjoys having my land open but we pay the taxes. If [they] want to keep it open, then make it a park and pay for it."

Mary Lynn Smith 651-298-1550 mlsmith@startribune.com