NORTHFIELD, Minn. – Plans for a major new development on a much beloved property here are stirring up emotions in this quiet college town 40 miles south of the Twin Cities.
The city's most prominent developer is proposing to build about 30 homes and a 100-unit apartment building on a wooded 12-acre site on the city's north side.
What's riled up some Northfield residents is the location itself: the former Paulson Christmas tree farm, a popular institution where, for decades, local families would pick out their holiday evergreens.
Developer Brett Reese and his company, Rebound Enterprises, have been behind a host of well-received residential and commercial developments in recent years.
A native of Northfield, Reese has had an outsized impact on this growing city of 21,000 residents.
"He kind of does own the town," said Northfield resident Bob Thacker. "He's like a friendly Mr. Potter from 'It's A Wonderful Life.' "
Thacker stresses that he has no bone to pick with Reese in general. But he's among a dozen or so residents who have led opposition to the current project, which is dubbed "Kraewood."
The project is too big for the site, they say, and would destroy one of the last wooded areas in the city limits.
Its location, across the street from an elementary school and an alternative learning center, would add hundreds of cars to the daily traffic volume, potentially endangering students as well as residents of a nearby assisted-living home, they say.
The woods also provide habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee — Minnesota's state bee and a federally endangered species.
Citizens formed a group called SHED: Northfield for Sustainable Housing, Environments and Developments. The group has more than 350 members, many of whom have testified at public hearings as well as submitted hundreds of pages of documents to city officials, detailing their objections.
"We're not opposed to all development, we're opposed to this development," said Kathy Schuurman, SHED's co-chair. "We have so few natural lands and woods anymore. To me, it's a precious parcel of land in Northfield."
The group also claims that the development will not provide sorely needed affordable housing for the city. The single-family homes planned for the site will sell for $350,000 to $600,000. Although a portion of the apartments will be set aside for affordable housing, it's not enough, they say.
As a Northfield native, Reese said he understands the emotional connection to the Paulson property. But the owners are elderly and need to sell to provide for their retirement.
His company has worked closely with the city, Reese said, and done everything city planners have asked it to.
There's a shortage of all kinds of housing in Northfield, he said, and a project such as Kraewood checks a lot of boxes. He noted that 40 of the 100 apartments will be offered at rates that are affordable to households making 60% of the area median income. That would translate to a maximum monthly rental of about $950, according to a recent housing study commissioned by the city.
"We are meeting a lot of the needs of the land code, the [city] comprehensive plan and the strategic plan," Reese said. "There's a strong need for housing, both multifamily and single family. We're carrying forward with what we believe is a really good project for Northfield.
"Yes, it's controversial. Yes, there are a lot of opinions," he said. "But Rebound and the team felt that it's needed for Northfield."
The city Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing for Thursday on the proposed development.