James J. Hill heir sues North Oaks over blocked real estate development

The heirs of railroad magnate James J. Hill have meticulously designed and built the private community of North Oaks for seven decades, espousing quality and conservation as core values ​​guiding development.

Now the North Oaks Co., owned by Hill’s great-granddaughter, is suing the northern County town of Ramsey it helped create – accusing a new majority on city council of blocking a development, a a decision which she described as “an extraordinary display of willful will in defiance” of her legal and contractual obligations.

It’s a rare public broadcast of grievances for this wealthy, private enclave of 5,300 residents where roads and open spaces are private and uninvited visitors can be accused of trespassing.

In a lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court, the company is asking a judge to order city council to approve final plans for Gate Hill, which calls for the construction of 73 homes – a mix of townhouses detached and twin houses – on a 32-hectare site. It is one of the last planned neighborhoods in North Oaks before the posh community was considered built.

City council, on a 3-2 vote, denied final approval at its September 9 council meeting, going against a staff recommendation to approve the plans. The denial also belies the preliminary approval of Gate Hill by North Oaks City Council in November 2020.

“We believe the design responds to comments from the Planning Commission, the North Oaks Home Owners’ Association and the previous City Council,” said Mark Houge of North Oaks Co. “Doug and Mari Harpur, owners of North Oaks Co., have worked very hard to meet all the wishes of the community. “

The lawsuit also alleges that North Oaks mayor Kara Ries, elected last November, made the fight against development a centerpiece of her campaign.

“Mayor Ries’ election campaign in 2020 was… boldly grounded in his commitment to overturn previous city council decisions” on development, according to the lawsuit.

Ries did not return a request for comment, but the council debated and questioned staff and Houge for nearly four hours before voting against the project. The majority of the council, including Ries, council members Jim Hara and Tom Watson, listed eight reasons for their refusal, including parking issues, the size of the lot and how the proposed Gate Hill neighborhood is doing. part of a larger development agreement between the company and the city.

“Planning commissions and city councils have the right to deny final plan approvals if they fail to comply with regulations,” Ries said at one point during the meeting.

City administrator Kevin Kress also did not return requests for comment.

At the center of the dispute is a planned 1999 development agreement between North Oaks Co. and the city that provided for the city’s completion over three decades. The original agreement called for a maximum of 645 additional residential units and 21 additional acres of commercial development on 780 acres.

The North Oaks Co. also agreed to set aside over 660 acres in a conservation trust and left an additional 220 acres for farming as part of the 1999 agreement. It is the largest conservation easement. owned by the Minnesota Land Trust in the metro area.

This 1999 agreement has been amended eight times over the years, including allowing the construction of a senior citizens’ residence and care facility in the commercial district around 2006. Houge said the changes now allow the ‘company to build a total of 673 housing units – most of which have been built – and approximately 15 acres of commercial development which has already been completed.

Ries and two other board members questioned some of these amendments and the associated calculations.

Council member Sara Shah, who, along with council member Rich Dujmovic, voted against the refusal, warned the move put the city at risk of legal challenge.

Ries had previously served on city council and often raised questions about development.

In August 2020, Ries’ colleagues on the then city council took a vote of no confidence against her after she was accused of inappropriately visiting a private development site with a hydrologist without North’s permission. Oaks Co. or acquaintance with other city officials. Ries vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

North Oaks’ history dates back to Hill, the railroad magnate, who in the 1880s bought 5,500 acres and turned it into a farm. His grandson Louis Hill Jr. eventually inherited the farm and began developing homes in the 1950s for what has been described as a model eco-friendly community.

After Louis Hill’s death in 1995, his daughter Mari Harpur and her husband, Doug, founded the North Oaks Co. with an emphasis on environmental sustainability. They hired a landscaper who created large conservation areas for private community use and grouped houses and other amenities around its edges. This culminated in the 1999 accord.

Even without the new construction, North Oaks will still have approximately 1,900 homes on 5,500 acres, making it one of the most spacious communities in the metro area. With a median household income of around $ 179,000, according to US Census data, it is also one of the wealthiest in the state.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037


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