Arrested Development

How Minnesota philanthropist and developer Henry McKnight's utopian vision of suburbia became a blueprint for modern exurban nightmares

When the trouble started, Walt Ripplinger had lived for more than 15 years on a leafy street in what's officially, if prosaically, known as Neighborhood Seven. It was the seventh cluster of pleasant, modest homes built in a 30-year-old Chaska development called Jonathan. Consisting of a number of intertwined subdivisions, it was a little white bread, but it was solidly middle class, the schools were good, and the housing surprisingly affordable.

Seven years ago, Ripplinger, who is half Lakota, decided he wanted to put up his family's tepee in his backyard. Because a homeowners' association governs Jonathan, he had to ask his neighbors for permission. "It's a very spiritual place," Ripplinger explains. "It's made in a circle. The Creator made things in a circle, no beginning, no end. The poles rest on Mother Earth and go up toward the sky, toward Grandfather. The smoke flaps are angled out like the arms of a human praying to the Creator."

His passion failed to move the residents of Neighborhood Seven, where the consensus was that the tepee was very, very big--18 feet wide and 26 feet tall--and completely out of place. Still, no one wanted to tell Ripplinger he couldn't worship as he pleased, and so after some back and forth the association offered a compromise. He could erect the lodge six times a year for 48 hours at a time.

Ripplinger was well known around Chaska for leading the charge against the desecration of some Indian burial mounds in a downtown park. That he would find the neighborhood group's decision unacceptable was a foregone conclusion.

But it didn't matter whether the neighbors were being fair. When he bought his house, Ripplinger had automatically agreed to Jonathan's rules about what residents can and can't do with their property. Chief among them: Only the smallest and most discreet of structures are allowed in yards in Jonathan, and even those must pass muster with an archi- tectural review committee.

All the years he'd lived in Neighborhood Seven, Ripplinger had known he belonged to the association, but beyond a little grumbling every year when he wrote out a check for $207 to cover his dues, he had seen little cause to think about it. "I didn't really like it," he says. "But I thought, 'Well, if they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone.'" He never considered that he might be agreeing to a whole new--and much narrower--set of rights.

There are now an estimated quarter of a million homeowner associations in the United States, governing details large and small of the lifestyles of as many as 50 million people. Researchers say master-planned developments with associations are by far the fastest-growing segment of the housing industry. Indeed, it's increasingly hard to find new suburban housing that is not run by a homeowner association. As one scholar puts it, it's the most dramatic privatization of government services in the nation's history--a sea change that has taken place with virtually no public debate.

Ripplinger left the lodge in storage and started trying to convince his neighbors to help him get rid of the association altogether. He quickly discovered that the homeowners' organization wasn't a typical association, with its limited arena of concerns. Like the residents' groups in many suburban subdivisions, the Jonathan Association was supposed to enforce rules about garbage and basketball hoops and exactly which paint chips and siding samples are earth tone and which are pastel. But it also had roots in a grandiose experiment in social engineering.

Jonathan was started as part of the New Town movement of the 1960s and '70s, an experiment in utopian urban planning. The New Towns were conceived as an alternative to the sprawling, sterile kind of suburb then colonizing cornfields and canyon lands all over the country. People were supposed to live, work, and play within a single, ecologically healthy city-within-a-city. Pedestrians were to trump cars; wooded walkways led to schools and the community center. Sure, the homeowners' association would look after approved paint colors, but its real purpose was to maintain amenities, virtually unknown at the time, like tot-lots and groomed trails that were supposed to draw people out of their homes into common areas. There, the theory was, they would form real community.

It was a pipe dream, but one that has turned out to be surprisingly enduring for homeowners--and more profitable for real estate developers than anyone could ever have imagined.

At first Ripplinger giggled at the plan's hippie-dippy ethos, its grandiose goal of making love, not war, at the neighborhood level. The ideas were quaint, he thought, but the experiment was over, the dream had obviously failed to materialize, and he wanted to decide for himself how to spend his $207 in yearly dues. He campaigned for a seat on the association board on a platform that promised to dissolve the residents' group, and won. He was, he says now, utterly clueless about what he was dealing with.

 

In 1963, Julius Smith was fresh out of law school and working in a small but respected law firm in downtown Chaska, where his duties included practicing a bit of municipal law for the town. One day Smith got a visit from the head of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, who told him that Henry T. McKnight--heir to a logging and milling fortune, successful real estate developer, and a state senator--wanted to see him.

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