North Oaks, the exclusive bedroom community in northern Ramsey County, is nearing completion after seven decades of meticulously controlled growth.
But the final build-out in the private, tony suburb of 5,200 is sparking controversy, with some residents and City Council members challenging a longtime developer’s plans to build 174 luxury houses, twin homes and condos under a 1999 agreement.
Tensions have run high for the past year and escalated this month at a City Council meeting, when the council confirmed on a 3-2 vote that the North Oaks Co., owned by an heir of St. Paul rail magnate James J. Hill, has the right to construct the last remaining homes in the 1999 agreement.
Mayor Gregg Nelson and two other council members were adamant that the developer can construct the additional homes over the next nine years.
“This is a valid agreement. North Oaks Company owns that land. They have the absolute right to build on it,” consistent with the planned development agreement, said Nelson, an attorney.
But two council members say the 1999 contract and ensuing amendments are unclear, and that construction a decade ago of Waverly Gardens, a 235-unit senior living and care campus, may restrict what can be built now.
Council Member Kara Ries said she fears the city is giving the North Oaks Co. “carte blanche” to develop the city’s remaining acreage.
“No one is saying we should stop development,” said Ries, also an attorney. “We have to think about what’s best for the community.”
Ries described North Oaks as a “nature lover’s paradise” and an important link in the Vadnais Lake Area watershed. She said some residents are not comfortable with the final build-out plans, which they feel don’t align with the original vision for North Oaks.
Those plans call for 85 detached townhouses and twin homes, about 40 single-family homes and 46 new condos, said Mark Houge, president of North Oaks Co. New homes would start in the high $400,000s and stretch into the millions. Construction could start by this fall.
The different home styles are driven largely by demand, including more single homeowners, more female homeowners and smaller families.
“It provides different types of housing for the residents of North Oaks,” Houge said.
Even with the new construction, North Oaks will still have about 1,900 homes on 5,500 acres, keeping it one of the metro area’s most spacious and scenic communities in the metro, Nelson said. With median household income at around $146,000, it’s also one of the state’s wealthiest communities.
The public dispute in many ways belies what has drawn many to North Oaks, best known for its hills, woods and meadows — and above all its privacy.
The history of North Oaks can be traced back to Hill, who in the 1880s purchased 5,500 acres and turned it into a farm. His grandson Louis Hill Jr., eventually inherited the farm and began to develop homes in the 1950s for what was described as a model community that respected the environment.
“Housing sites were chosen to conform with nature; natural beauty was to be preserved if at all possible,” according to the North Oaks Co. website.
Lots were spacious, often between 1 and 2 acres, according to property records. Homes used wells and septic systems, and the roads were private. They still are; uninvited visitors who drive through can be issued a trespassing citation.
After Louis Hill died in 1995, his daughter Mari Hill Harpur and her husband, Doug, started North Oaks Co. Concerned about environmental sustainability, they brought in landscape planner Randall Arendt, who created large conservation areas for the private community’s use and grouped homes and other development around its edges.
As part of its planning, North Oaks Co. set aside more than 660 acres in a conservation trust and left an additional 220 acres as agricultural. It’s the largest conservation easement held by the Minnesota Land Trust in the metro area.
In exchange, the city approved a 30-year development plan with North Oaks Co. in 1999. The plan allowed the developer to build 645 homes and develop 21 acres for commercial use. More than 15 acres of the latter was used to build Waverly Gardens, a senior community with living and care options, in the 2000s.
Nelson and other members of the City Council, who voted to approve Waverly Gardens a decade ago, said it was clear at the time that the 235 senior units would not be counted as housing. The city attorney recently reviewed documents and concurred that the Waverly Garden units were not intended to be included in the city’s total housing count.
But Ries and some residents say those units should be counted in some fashion against North Oaks Co.’s total housing units. At a City Council meeting this month Franny Skamser Lewis, who moved to the city in 2016, presented a petition signed by more than 400 residents asking that Waverly Gardens be counted in some fashion against the total number of homes allowed the developers.
“Our concern isn’t about the housing density. It’s about where homes are going and good city planning,” said Skamser Lewis, whose home would border some of the new development.
She said she was worried about preserving wetlands and the natural environment, and that the build-out plans deviated too far from what was laid out in the 1999 agreement.
“I don’t see this as any different from how we protect the Boundary Waters,” Skamser Lewis said.
But Houge said the owners of North Oaks Co. have reaffirmed their longstanding commitment to environmentally responsible development by hiring a conservation program director, a former official with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Nelson, who was appointed mayor in 2018 and won re-election in 2019, said he wants to shepherd the city through this final growth spurt.
“I want to be involved in this last piece of the development of North Oaks,” said Nelson, who grew up in the city. “I knew this would be a controversial time.”
The mayor said that some residents have become uneasy with both more homes and more entrances to the city — there are now more than a dozen entrances. Some of North Oaks’ newer sections connect to White Bear Township’s and Shoreview’s municipal water and sewer, which creates more links with neighboring communities. “We have terrific neighbors,” he said.
Nelson said the developer’s patience and careful work should be a point of pride for the community, not conflict.
“The North Oaks Company has been developing and working in North Oaks for over 60 years. What developer takes that much time and care?” Nelson said. “It’s going to be beautiful. ... But change is tough.”