Council committee delays vote on teardown moratorium

A home under construction in Linden Hills — one of several new residential developments in the 13th Ward. Credit:

The City Council’s Zoning & Planning Committee voted to delay taking action on the one-year southwest Minneapolis teardown moratorium Thursday, March 20 to give city staff more time to analyze whether it’s necessary to implement to get a handle on the sharp increase in residential building construction that has rankled many neighbors.

The City Council approved the one-year moratorium March 7 after City Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) introduced the interim ordinance. The Zoning & Planning Committee will continue the discussion on teardowns April 3.

Most of the roughly 40 people who spoke at the March 20 public hearing voiced opposition to the moratorium, calling it a “blunt” instrument that will deter families and other newcomers from moving into the area and cost people jobs. Opponents also called on the city to step up enforcement and fine builders who aren’t complying with the city’s rules.

Supporters of the measure, however, said a halt in construction is necessary to make sure the city can encourage sustainable growth that doesn’t jeopardize the environment or quality of life for residents who live next to teardown/rebuild projects. 

To date, Palmisano said she has received 364 emails/letters from people within Ward 13 — 216 people expressed support for the moratorium and 148 people voiced opposition. 

City Planning Manager Jason Wittenberg said the city isn’t trying to deter investment in the neighborhoods impacted by the moratorium. The goal is to improve construction site management practices to ensure more sensitivity to the environment and respect for neighbors impacted by the projects.

“There is a level of carelessness among some builders that neighboring property owners should not have to tolerate,” he said.

The city has received 105 “zoning enforcement requests for service” over the past two years regarding construction sites in the neighborhoods impacted by the moratorium, Wittenberg said. 

The 13th Ward has experienced an unprecedented increase in residential construction activity the past two years. Wittenberg compared the scale of the construction to the large Heritage Park redevelopment project in the Near North neighborhood — a 145-acre, 900-housing unit development. 

Palmisano said she acknowledges that the moratorium comes with costs, but so does “maintaining the status quo.”  

In a report she prepared detailing the impact of the teardowns, she points to several examples of the property damage neighbors of teardowns have experienced, including basement flooding and litter from construction debris ending up in their yards. 

She also thanked all the residents who have contacted her to discuss their views on the moratorium. “This has brought people to the table,” she said. “It’s been an all-hands on deck moment.” 

Mayor Betsy Hodges, who represented the 13th Ward on the City Council for two terms before taking office, said she’s committed to working with Palmisano moving forward to improve the city’s policies. While on the Council, she spearheaded an infill ordinance that set limits on the size, height and lot-coverage of single and two-family homes.  

“I am confident we can resolve these issues without having to do a long-term moratorium,” Hodges said.

She added that it’s important for the city to enforce its regulations, set clear expectations for developers and improve communication among stakeholders.

“First and foremost, I support investment in Minneapolis neighborhoods and I appreciate the people who are willing to make that investment, and I share Council Member Palmisano’s goal of creating a system where home builders build like they live next door,” she said. 

The moratorium applies to teardowns of single- and two-family homes in Linden Hills, Fulton, Armatage, Kenny and Lynnhurst. To date, Fulton and Lynnhurst’s neighborhood associations have passed resolutions voicing opposition to the moratorium while expressing support for the goals Palmisano is trying to achieve. 

It also applies to building additions exceeding 1,500 square feet.

City Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), who offered the motion to continue the public hearing April 3, said she’s glad Palmisano brought the issue forward and has captured the attention of city leaders and the community. 

She said the two-week pause will give city staff a chance to determine what immediate actions the city can take to deal with the problems caused by the teardowns, as well as longer term solutions. She said she advocates using permit fees to allow the city to hire more people to step up enforcement of problem builders — a practice done in other cities. 

People who filed wrecking or building permits before March 7 are exempt from the moratorium. People can also apply for waivers if they could show substantial financial hardship or if they can prove their project won’t impact the purpose of the moratorium. 

Zoning and Planning Committee Chair Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said delaying a decision on the moratorium for two weeks will give city staff time to process all of the feedback received to date and make a detailed recommendation.

“I take property rights very seriously and do not take even this brief moratorium lightly,” she wrote on her Facebook page after today’s hearing. “However, I want to make sure we have a clear strategy for addressing the short and long term changes that need to be made to protect the rights of existing residents. We also need to ensure new residents will live in neighborhoods that are not impacted by construction issues that have gotten out of control. I am confident that with [Council Member] Palmisano’s leadership this will come to a conclusion that leads to better results for all of our residents, current and future.”

Waiting game

Those impacted by the moratorium remain in a holding pattern, awaiting word about the fate of their projects.

The online petition circulating asking the Council to reverse the moratorium was 1,166 signatures as of March 21.

Representatives from the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, the Twin Cities chapter of the AIA Minnesota, area builders and home owners in the middle of planning projects were among those who spoke out against the teardown moratorium March 20.

Julia Parenteau, government affairs director for the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, said the association agrees that there are problems to be solved and thanked Palmisano for “starting dialogue” on the issue. The moratorium, however, goes too far and sends the message that the city is “closed for business.”

Amy Gustafson, a property owner in Linden Hills, also criticized the moratorium at the public hearing. She said it has amplified tensions among neighbors that has been simmering for some time.

“Perhaps the saddest part is the wedge this is driving further into these neighborhoods,” Gustafson said in an interview a few days after the Council hearing. “I’m shocked at some of the ‘us and them’ comments I’ve heard from people, the criticisms, insults, and judgment being hurled at people who just want to build a home for their family in a neighborhood where they want to live, a neighborhood they choose because they do share the values of the community.” (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct Gustafson’s statement.)

Gustafson has owned a duplex in Linden Hills for 14 years. She’s rented it out for 11 years and has been planning to tear it down and rebuild a new home roughly the same footprint. The current property is in need of expensive repairs but it’s in a prime spot near Southwest High School so she ran the numbers and decided it would make sense for her to find a builder who could build her a new home for her family.

She’s received word from the city that her project can likely move forward despite the moratorium, but she remains discouraged about the city’s actions.

“It’s still shocking to me that in the City of Minneapolis, in the state of Minnesota, from one day to the next, someone can take away my right to build on my property that I’ve owned for 14 years,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to spend countless nights at community meetings, hours at City Council meetings away from my kids and my job to defend that right.”

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Where neighborhoods stand on teardowns

Armatage

Supports work to address the issue? Yes

Supports a moratorium? No

The impact on Armatage: Armatage has seen an influx of new residents and an increase in teardowns.

What they want: The city should consistently enforce existing regulations with attention to environmental concerns and stormwater management. New city rules should eliminate loopholes. New construction should respect the character of the neighborhood as well as individual property rights.

Quote: “The Armatage Neighborhood Association respects the goals set forth by Council Member Palmisano; however, as enacted, the Armatage Neighborhood Association does not support a moratorium to achieve these important neighborhood needs.”

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Kenny

Supports work to address the issue? Yes

Supports a moratorium? No position

The impact on Kenny: Kenny has seen more young families and more remodels, but the area has fewer teardowns than some of the other Southwest neighborhoods.

What they want: The city needs consistent building code and construction site enforcement that includes environmental review, elimination of current regulatory loopholes, and an improved design process so projects fit the character of the neighborhood. A facilitator will attend Kenny’s April 22 meeting to encourage dialogue and input from residents.

Quotes: “It seems to me that some builders are building on spec with no vested interest in the house or the neighborhood. Other developers are very conscientious, and end up with a good product.” — Bryan Simmons, Kenny Neighborhood Association board member

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Lynnhurst

Supports work to address the issue? Yes

Supports a moratorium? No

The impact on Lynnhurst: This is a relatively new topic for the neighborhood and teardowns are more widespread in other neighborhoods, particularly Fulton and Linden Hills.

What they want: “Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association fully supports Council Member Palmisano’s

intentions and wants to engage with her in improving the building process and the resulting homes. We do not support a moratorium.”

Quote: “We’re very supportive of Council Member Palmisano’s efforts. A moratorium was a little more than was necessary to address the issue. It could be addressed with enforcement.” — Paul Ragozzino, Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association board member

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Fulton

Supports work to address the issue? Yes

Supports a moratorium? No

The impact on Fulton: In 2013, the city granted 23 permits for new single-family homes in Fulton, the second-highest of any neighborhood.

What they want: The city needs to better enforce existing ordinances. The issue should be resolved fairly and quickly. The city should improve the building process without a moratorium.

Quote: “We’re talking north of 50 million dollars of economic activity in the ward in the year. … I’ve got three teardowns on my block alone. There’s no argument that something needs to be done about the ordinance. … I keep going back to the moratorium as having an ugly negative economic impact on the neighborhood. … Why should that money get spent in Edina? I’d like to see it spent here.” — John Finlayson, Fulton Neighborhood Association board member

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Linden Hills

The impact on Linden Hills: Linden Hills has more teardowns than any other neighborhood in the city, with 29 permits granted for new single-family homes last year.

Supports work to address the issue? Discussion indicated yes.

Supports a moratorium? The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC) will use a community engagement process in the coming weeks to form an official position.

Quotes: “A moratorium is implying that whoever lives in this teardown house, there’s something wrong about that. We should be welcoming.” — Matt Mohning, LHiNC board member

“I don’t see a moratorium as taking someone’s rights. It’s a temporary thing.” — Constance Pepin, LHiNC board member

“It seems to me this neighborhood is quite split on this.” — Larry LaVercombe, LHiNC Zoning Committee member

— Michelle Bruch