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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Nichols

Conditional Use Realignment

The city council will soon consider a proposal to help ensure low density residential zones will be developed with low intensity uses only. Currently, zoning ordinances allow places of assembly like K-12 schools and places of religious assembly as conditional uses in low density residential areas.

These land uses are good on their face and should be allowed in the city, and even encouraged, but they should also be located in areas where they fit. These kinds of uses create large amounts of peak traffic, have large buildings and large parking lots that differ greatly from low density residential neighborhoods. Our challenge as a city is to make sure that these kinds of development fit into the surrounding area, and residential neighborhoods are not a good fit for them.

In one recent case, a large megachurch sought a conditional use permit to build a 2 acre building and 10 acre parking lot in a low density residential area. The dispute led to a large citizen movement, creating considerable stress, work, and expense for the applicant, the city, and residents. That proposal was ultimately rejected, but generated a massive amount of wasted energy for every party involved (though it did create considerable revenue for city contractors).

That kind of waste is a signal that something in the system is wrong, and as a responsible council member I am looking to make a common sense change to the zoning ordinance to prevent its recurrence. As I campaigned and spoke with hundreds of residents last fall, my message was clear- we should have the city planned in such a way that residential areas can stay residential, and keep higher intensity land uses in the zones the fit. This message resonated universally across the city.

I am supporting a proposal to remove places of assembly as conditional uses from low density residential zones, and adding them as conditional uses in Industrial- 1. The total land available in the city for these uses will be approximately equal after the change, but the large buildings, larger parking surfaces, and peak traffic will be a better fit in these areas. Indeed, as shown below, the vast majority of the city will be open to these uses both before and after the proposed updates:

This is a change to a small amount of the city’s total area to better align the uses with the purpose of the zones. This practice is what some neighboring cities, such as Greenfield and Wayzata, already have in place. I have heard a few concerns about the proposal that are discussed below.

1. Concerned parties have said that we should welcome schools and churches to the city. I completely agree with this sentiment, but add the distinction that we should welcome them in the places where they fit best. There is still a huge amount of land available for these uses.

The proposal would not meaningfully reduce the area available for these uses, just change which areas are suitable. With the poor level of appropriate transitions between zones in the city (industrial & high density zones bordering low density residential) we are already set up for a chaotic development pattern, and we ought to work within those constraints to further minimize the potential for mismatches.

2. Some have said that they would like to see zoning options stay open to allow for more flexibility in development. What this doesn’t account for is the existing industrial zone ordinance doesn’t allow these kinds of development currently, and the proposal will create more flexibility in these areas. The update will allow for more interesting and novel developments in areas with a better match to this kind of land use. Indeed, it is likely more beneficial for creative development to occur in industrial areas where more kinds of development could be combined. This allows a greater potential for creativity than in a low density residential zone where fewer combinations are possible.

3. Others have said that the CUP process already provides protection and these kinds of changes aren’t necessary. This argument doesn’t deal with the fact the existing code guides these uses to places they inherently conflict with. This drives immense costs to applicants and to the city to evaluate proposals with a high probability of rejection. The CUP process is expensive, and it is wasteful to go through it and be rejected. It is better to align these conditional uses in zones where the fit is better and they are more likely to be acceptable due to better road access, and more similarly sized buildings, parking lots, and traffic levels.

These updates help to ensure that residential areas retain a residential feel and focus large buildings in common locations. The council will be discussing these ideas at the May 27th 2021 meeting. Feedback from the public is always welcome and I hope you will participate either by writing or calling in.

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