Arrested Development

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

"We came out and looked and we liked the idea behind it," she says. "It was regulated. They would not allow the house next door to be painted purple. There were no junky cars in driveways getting worked on. You never have to cross a busy street because all the paths go under the streets. Of course now all developments have that, but then it was new. Plus all the trees.

"It seemed so simple," Frey adds. "Earth tones, clean lines, two-car garages, and enough driveways that cars weren't parked on the street."

After a decade, though, it became clear that neither the futuristic design nor the system of legal covenants was enough to guarantee domestic harmony. By about 1980, Frey and other original Jonathan residents say, the party was pretty much over. By then most women had moved into the workforce, and families were too busy to plan the get-togethers. To make matters more tenuous, the original housing stock began to run down, and newcomers who knew nothing of McKnight's communalist dream began moving in.

Jonathan's legal structure is extraordinarily complicated. While most of the land in any given portion of the massive original parcel may be sold to a particular developer to build on and resell, the Jonathan Association owns land within each section of the whole. McKnight and his partners attached the same covenants to all of the land in the beginning. Consequently, all homeowners, regardless of when their houses were built, are automatically dues-paying Jonathan members. The association, in turn, is responsible for the upkeep of the common areas, which it owns.

Early on, several residents filed lawsuits alleging that their dues (then $50 a year) were too high. Association staff, meanwhile, strained to figure out how to maintain aging facilities on a meager budget. Some original residents recall a time when Jonathan seemed overrun by busybodies who had nothing better to do but traverse neighborhoods looking for possible rule violations.

Elaine Ward moved into one of the nice houses on King's Way, just down from the Idea House. For a while, she says, her husband didn't want to pay dues. The owner of a house down the street had left an old washer in the driveway for too long, he thought. When it was clear no one from the association was going to do anything, her husband spoke to the man. There was another episode involving a boat in a yard. There was conflict over how strictly the association should enforce the rules.

Ward remembers a struggle in one neighborhood over what to do about a trash house. No one seemed to know where the association's authority ended and the city of Chaska's began. "Meanwhile the neighborhood was looking worse and worse," says Ward. In the end, the owner of the garbage house agreed to a stipulation that he had created a health hazard, and the city allowed him to move into a double-wide trailer while they tore the house down.

Such breakdowns in homeowner association governance are fairly common, according to Evan McKenzie. "For the first few years, while the developer is building, the developer controls the rules. They're still selling homes," he points out, and thus retain a stake in keeping things looking a certain way. When the developer leaves, however, residents sometimes end up with ugly surprises, ranging from sticker shock over the true cost of the upkeep to whole new sets of covenants.

"This is about money. It's a form of private government," says McKenzie. "This is not just about the color of mailboxes. This is about how you are going to finance the upkeep of the community. People are paying these assessments, and if it's not enough the associations have to go back to the residents. They often have to raise money very quickly through large special assessments."

It's a lot of usually thankless work, says McKenzie. "So you end up with either these salt of the earth types running it, or lunatic control freaks." City inspectors and county tax collectors can start to seem appealingly organized and efficient.

Marsh Halberg moved his young family to Jonathan in 1979. An attorney, he quickly got involved with trying to make the association work. He found literally drawers full of covenants and bylaws, but very little to work with in terms of how to go about enforcing the rules.

"The controls were pretty vague," says Halberg. "When we say we control things aesthetically, for instance, what your house looks like, what does that mean?" For a while, it meant that basketball hoops had to be painted the same color as the houses, he says--until someone decided the rule was practically unenforceable in any case.

"We have issues you can't imagine, like satellite dishes. They didn't have satellite dishes in the '70s," he says. "We tried to have uniform rules, we tried to make it not clique-y. But it was an enormous commitment of time, volunteering to be on the board. It was every night."

When Walt Ripplinger tried to put up his tepee, he opened Pandora's box. It was as if he had unleashed years of frustrations over when and why the rules could be bent or changed. In the years that followed, there would be battles over whether to rebuild a community center that had burned down years before, what to do about homeowners who refuse all requests to mow their lawns or police their weeds, and, most acrimoniously, whether to make an exception to the rule against building perimeter fences for a woman with an autistic child.

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