Vadnais Heights rebels against a huge new apartment complex

The five-story building would rise in a neighborhood that feels almost rural.

The five-story building would rise in a neighborhood that feels almost rural. Vadnais Heights Planning Commission Meeting

The small, close-knit suburb of Vadnais Heights is fighting over a small piece of swampy land. In one corner: developer Peter Stalland. In the other: about 100 angry residents.

Stalland plans to develop 16 acres of mostly farmland into a five-story, 156-unit apartment complex. It will have over 280 parking spots, including an underground garage, and a mix of studios, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom dwellings. The target market is yuppies and empty nesters -- folks who can afford the $1,000-$2,000 per month rent.

But some neighbors have a problem with that. Like William Mulry, who lives near the proposed “monstrosity,” as he calls it.

“What you’re proposing here tonight, what could be done, in my opinion, is insane,” he said at a recent Vadnais Heights Planning Commission meeting. “That building doesn’t fit in this community at all.”

The area surrounding the site is flat and grassy, with a few very old trees. There’s not a lot around except for some single-family homes and bordering wetlands. The current zoning rules allow for buildings about three stories tall – much shorter than Stalland is proposing.

Resident after resident took to the mic at the commission meeting to complain that the complex would stick out like a sore thumb and tank their property values. They also worry about more people, commuters, garbage trucks, and school buses in a neighborhood that feels almost rural.

“We aren’t anti-development or anti-growth,” resident Dave Dejarlais says. They can take some two- or three-story townhouses. But the height and space adjustments being made for this five-story building seem "far beyond what is reasonable and in good faith.”

The owner of the 16 acres question is one Gerry Urban, who spent 36 years as Vadnais Heights’ city administrator until retiring five years ago. The land was handed down to him by his parents and grandparents.

“They like the property like it was,” he said when he took the mic. But the population of the city swelled from 3,000 to 13,000 during his tenure. “Vadnais Heights isn’t like it was. It’s the future. Everybody has to look toward the future.”

Urban said Stalland was one of two developers to approach him. The other was proposing a smaller building, but it would have been cheaper housing.

“The higher the rents, the less police calls,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, unfortunately.”

To make matters more complicated, Gerry’s son, Greg Urban, happens to serve on the Vadnais Heights City Council and Planning Commission. Neither Gerry nor Greg responded to interview requests, and whether Greg will vote or abstain remains to be seen.

The idea of Greg playing a deciding role has some residents concerned. “I think this is a very obvious conflict of interest,” neighbor Erik Goebel says. Opponents have asked Urban to recuse himself.

In the end, the Planning Commission voted to move the plan along to the City Council. Meanwhile, Commissioner Curt Cooper pointed out that regardless of whether or not this project is approved, the suburb needs some kind of new housing. If it’s not Stalland, it will be the next guy.