'Deja vu all over': Two Harbors fights again over Lighthouse Point development
For more than twenty years, Todd Ronning has served as one of the volunteer lighthouse keepers at the Two Harbors Lighthouse, built in 1892 on a rocky point on the shore of Agate Bay to help guide ore boats.
"One of the perks is you get to come up here and kind of take it all in every so often,” the Two Harbors woodcarver said recently as he climbed the steep steps to the top of the tower, then out onto a circular deck with a sweeping view of the sun rising over Lake Superior.
The lighthouse stands on an acre of land at the end of a point that juts out into Lake Superior, protecting the bay.
There's a boat launch below. Old ore docks loom over the water across the bay. Ore-boats still glide in to load up with taconite pellets. A walking path wraps around the point along the shore through the trees.
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Ronning points to a patch of land just beyond the fence that surrounds the Lighthouse. That is where three developers are proposing to build 26 townhomes, along with a coffee shop, bar or restaurant.
It’s “deja vu all over again” said Ronning. Beginning in 2003, he was part of a large group of local residents who fought for years against a similar proposal to build condos and shops on the site.
He’d prefer to see the five acres permanently protected as parkland.
"The lighthouse and Lighthouse Point is really the most iconic image of Two Harbors,” Ronning said. “It's really what defines Two Harbors. A lighthouse at the end of a secluded point is a pretty special thing.”
Twenty years ago, a developer named Sam Cave purchased most of Lighthouse Point from the railroad that carts taconite from Iron Range mines to the Two Harbors ore docks.
He pitched a plan to build condos, a motel, shops and a restaurant.
But the development faced fierce opposition. After years of lawsuits, the city acquired much of the forested eastern side of the point along the lake for a city park.
In exchange, Cave kept 5.4 acres near the lighthouse.
He never developed it. But earlier this year, three developers approached Two Harbors with a new plan to build townhomes on the site, perched above Lake Superior.
Duluth homebuilder Ted Stocke is one of those involved. He is currently constructing a row of modern townhomes in Duluth along London Road, the main thoroughfare up the North Shore.
“So you know the three main things about real estate? Location, location, location,” he said.
“So the location is fantastic. It's a beautiful spot. Agate Bay is gorgeous, and Two Harbors itself is a neat little town. So it just seemed to make sense. It was like, yeah, this would be a great spot for housing."
Stocke and his partners are proposing to build 13 two-unit townhomes, one row of single-story buildings, with a second row of three-story units behind, that would reach about the same height as the lighthouse itself.
He envisions energy-efficient, modern buildings that blend into the surroundings, with wood accents and black trim, possibly plate metal steel for a rusted look, and lots of windows overlooking the lake.
Their concept plan also includes a coffee shop, bar or restaurant, featuring local beer and locally-caught fish, that they contend would “enhance and promote the public’s use of Agate Bay as a destination of choice.”
The developers are asking for a special allowance to build more units than the underlying zoning allows, and for tax increment financing. A TIF subsidy would use additional property tax revenue generated by the project to pay for the public infrastructure required to build it.
Since the proposal was first made public at a hearing in January, it has already faced substantial scrutiny from local residents.
At a standing room only city council meeting earlier this week, several residents argued against allowing the developers to increase the project’s density and granting the use of tax increment financing.
"So if it looks like this might be a windfall to the city in terms of taxes, a TIF would mean that's not the case,” argued Glenn Johnson.
"The owners of these high-end homes… their money is going to go back into roads, sewer, and that type of thing through their development" instead of into the city coffers, he said.
"The thing that I know absolutely is that it's not the city's role to help the developers make a profit on this land,” added Two Harbors resident Judy Olson.
Others called for the creation of a public-private partnership to buy the land to permanently preserve it.
“We need a much more comprehensive plan than putting in a bunch more high-income townhomes and obliterating an area that has been an important part of the lives of those of us who live in this area," said Elliott Crompton.
While most in the crowd opposed the project, another Two Harbors resident, Jay Cole, argued the city needs more housing, “Even if it's high-end housing. We are in a housing crisis, and this could be the catalyst that could drive more housing to be built."
Several Two Harbors city council members said they want to hear more details from the developers. They discussed scheduling another meeting to gather additional information before deciding whether to allow the project to move forward.
"I love the fact that somebody actually is willing to invest in it,” said Council Member Mike Kasell.
“I personally don't feel that's the right choice for Two Harbors. I'd like to see some other options as far as the development of it. But, they own the property," he conceded
Todd Ronning said he felt many local residents could get behind a proposal to build a restaurant on the property.
Developer Ted Stocke said they pitched a housing development “thinking it would be one of the least impactful” uses of the land. He said while he was expecting some local pushback, he was surprised to hear some call for a more commercial development.
"We're certainly going to take the feedback that we got from that meeting and talk about it and see if there isn't a way that maybe maybe we do include a little bit more of that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Todd Ronning and others are working to raise $70,000 to restore the Two Harbors Lighthouse beacon, including the original sweep of the lens across the landscape.
Standing atop the lighthouse, he envisioned the beam of light moving across the lake, and across the forested point.
"And I am a little bit sad to think that if this were to be to go through, that sweeping beam is just going to be illuminating this whole development.”