Friends of the Eagan Core Greenway

Neighbors Clash over Tiny Haven
Opponents Line Up against Couple's Plan
to Sell 2 Acres of Seclusion to Developer

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Saturday, November 20, 2004

by Laura Yuen

A wooded neighborhood is raging against Larry and Marilynn McNurlin's plan to sell their 2-acre gully, proving that even the tiniest remaining slivers of undeveloped land in Eagan are worth a fight.

Ever since neighbors learned this fall that the couple was collaborating with a housing developer, they measured the area's tree trunks, scrutinized the environmental challenges and took their PowerPoint presentation to City Hall in an attempt to crush the plan.

"It's retirement time for us, and these people have been turning it into an incredible misery," said Larry McNurlin, who wants to retire and leave the area after living beside the ravine for 30 years.

"We were good neighbors and friends to everybody," Marilynn McNurlin said. "I was the woman who brought cakes to all the new neighbors."

But next-door neighbor and former Vikings defensive back Karl Kassulke said he feels just as shocked and betrayed. He and others contend that after the McNurlins bought the land at a tax-forfeiture auction in 1998 for $100, the couple promised residents they would keep it as the community's open space.

Neighbors have grown attached to an albino deer and the wild turkeys that trot through the shallow ravine, which is surrounded by houses. Today, the county estimates that the land in northwest Eagan is worth $44,700.

"We must have never known them," resident Dan Sprick said of his former friends. "And if we did, money has really changed them."

The McNurlins deny ever making that promise and said they bought the parcel with the purpose of developing it. At an advisory planning commission meeting Tuesday, homebuilder and first-time developer J. Christensen Construction will propose building four large houses -- with an average price tag of $700,000 apiece -- in the gully and on the site of the McNurlins' home, said Christensen vice president Jeremy Hover.

Opponents won a first-round victory last month when the city's parks commission recommended denying a plan that involved six houses. Neighbors noted the site was lush with wetlands, criticized Christensen's tree-replacement plans and noted that the surrounding area -- where a number of houses have already been built -- served as a rubber dump after World War II and contains elevated levels of lead.

Dakota County environmental specialists who studied the old dump in the 1990s stopped short of testing the contested ravine, but they suggest developers take extra caution if they plan to build there.

Hover noted that Christensen has scaled back the plan by two houses. The new proposal calls for donating the undesired, wetland portion of the land to the city. He said Christensen would not build on land suspected of being a dump.

But that was news to City Planner Mike Ridley as of Friday. That last-minute change would likely mean the proposal would have to go back to the parks commission for review, Ridley said.

He also noted that a small dirt road that leads to the proposed development site is controlled by a private easement. In order for the development to succeed, the McNurlins would probably need buy-in from the other neighbors, Sprick and Kassulke.

"That's not going to happen," Sprick said.

Peggy Carlson, a City Council member who grew up near the site near Minnesota 13 and Lone Oak Road, said she never would have thought homes would be built there one day. But any remnants of open land in Eagan are now considered game for new housing, she said.

"People are really feeling like (developers) are crossing the line on what is developable," she said. "There is a reason why they have not been developed, whether it's water or environmental or topography."

The McNurlins said they're simply acting on a wise investment from several years ago. Over the years, they've kept an eye on their neighbors' houses while they were away, they plow the shared road in winters, and their children baby-sat their neighbors' children. They didn't complain when the woods around them morphed into new housing lots.

About 25 neighbors met at the Kassulkes' house Wednesday night, passing around a basket of chocolate-chip cookies as they plotted their next move. On a positive note, they say the sparring with the McNurlins' plans has brought everyone else closer together.

"I don't fault them for doing this," resident Connie Willwerscheid said. "It's just that we're going to fight it."

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