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John and Kelly Harrington knew the 120-year-old Victorian in downtown Excelsior needed work, but it still seemed the perfect place to launch a plan to live above their own boutique.

What they didn't realize when they bought the $750,000 former flower shop in March is how closely any renovations would have to follow a strict set of city requirements designed to maintain the exterior's original appearance.

"Quite candidly, we probably did not do our due diligence," John Harrington said. "We naively thought we'd be welcome to do these updates and changes and do something nice for the community."

The Harringtons soon found themselves mired in conflict with the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) over details like window design and patio size. But while the Harringtons say the commission is keeping them from achieving their dream, HPC Chairman Mark Macpherson said they're flouting city rules.

"The HPC has been more than willing to work with [John Harrington]; we've gone to the site and talked through all of these things with him," Macpherson said. "It seems like he's intending to just do whatever he wants, regardless of city codes and restrictions."

After months of back-and-forth, the Harringtons and the preservation commission have, for now, reached an impasse. Since October, the building has stood raggedly empty — partly boarded up, siding partly stripped, an orange stop-work order pasted to a front window.

The HPC is scheduled to take up the matter at its Tuesday meeting. A subcommittee has recommended denying the Harringtons' application and requiring that they undo most of the changes they've made.

Excelsior has long battled over home preservation and last fall passed what may be the state's strictest residential zoning ordinance, requiring city approval for new construction plans. Historic landmarks, meanwhile, have long been subject to rules designed to maintain their original appearance.

The Harringtons' property is in Excelsior's Downtown Historic District, an area designated in the 1980s that includes part of Water Street, the city's main street, and some adjoining blocks. Any alterations to structures in that area must be reviewed by the HPC and approved by the City Council.

The city's residential areas are also sprinkled with historic landmark homes, some dating to the late 1800s. Some are designated as historic landmarks — with all the accompanying regulations — but most are not.

Former Excelsior Mayor Mark Gaylord, who owns a renovated 1880 home next to the Commons, a park on Lake Minnetonka, said he and his family worked hard to preserve the historic character of the house — but chose not to have it designated as historic.

"In the end there's really no upside for the homeowner to do that," Gaylord said.

Several years ago, Dan Brattland bought an 1880 lakeside home already designated historically significant and has been renovating it since then. The rehabbing has cost about $500,000 more, he estimates, than if he'd demolished the house and built new.

"But I got the property I wanted; it worked," Brattland said. "I have a sense of pride in the historic aspect of the town and owning a historic property."

In attempting to renovate their property, the Harringtons have encountered a slew of city rules regulating specific design elements of their more than $10,000 custom windows, the size of their patio and location of the door leading into their boutique.

Meanwhile, some additional plans conflict with other city regulations — an addition to the back of the building would complicate access to a sewer line, city officials say.

Nearly a year after buying the property, the Harringtons say their vision for "something really cool" that would benefit the city seems far off.

Instead, Kelly Harrington said, "We got ourselves in a can of worms."

"And we don't know how to get out of it," added her husband.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583