The neighbors fought oak tree by oak tree to stop construction of a house near the Mississippi River, but they lost this week when a Minneapolis City Council committee voted to approve a zoning code variance that will allow the project to go forward.
John and Judith Reiling need a variance to build their home near 36th and Edmund because it would be within 40 feet of a steep slope. Without a variance, there would be no way to build a driveway giving the couple access to the house. Without access to the lot, the house could not be built and the city would be forced to buy the land.
Both sides came armed for battle but sat patiently while city staff explained that the Reilings’ planned house met all of the qualifications for a variance: Soil erosion would not be a problem. There’d be no impact on the Mississippi River, and it would not injure adjacent properties. And the house would not be visible from the street or river, which is about 900 feet away.
It sounded like a slam-dunk for the Reilings.
Never count on a slam-dunk, though, especially if you’re planning a house on a wooded lot overlooking the Mississippi.
“If this part of the river bluff is destroyed, there’s no way to get it back,” said Irene Jones, director of the River Corridor Program enlisted by the neighbors to help oppose construction. She pointed out that the lot sits at the top of a ravine off the river in an area that is the only “true gorge” on the entire Mississippi.
The lot has four large bur oak trees, three of them abutting the planned driveway. The lot also has several hundred small trees and a small stream that fills up in rainy weather.
“This is disastrous if we lose those oak trees,” said neighbor Dwight Anderson who estimates that 220 trees will be clear cut to make room for construction. With the trees gone, he predicts that water is “gonna go like gangbusters” across neighborhood property and into a nearby storm culvert.
“If we really thought we would kill the trees, quite frankly, we would not build the house,” John Reiling told the committee. He came armed with his architect and his landscape architect to defend plans for the 2,300-square-foot home, which would have a long driveway.
He also promised he would not plant grass or use fertilizer and would “preserve as much of the natural characteristics of the lot as possible.”
Even the federal government got into the fray. Alan Robbins-Fenger, a planner for the National Parks Service He asked committee members to think about the river’s future and “err on the side of caution” for “a treasured American resource.”
Two hours into the discussion, with three more public hearings waiting in the wings, Council President Barb Johnson moved to grant the variance.. Committee Chair Gary Schiff amended that motion to require the Reilings to make some design changes aimed at limiting water runoff. And it passed.
The Reilings didn’t celebrate their victory. As they rushed past their future neighbors, Judith Reiling said, “We’ll alter our plans and go forward and build the house.”
The neighbors, meanwhile, are discussing their next step in the battle to stop construction.
Once the Reilings move in, though, they should get along with everyone — they all share a love of trees.