Justin Stark passed through the larger-than-usual crowd on the way to his seat in the front of the room. He caught the glare of fluorescent lights from the bald head of Brendon Klein, the hum of those same lights audible in the hushed room. A typical meeting of the Chippewa Lakes planning commission would have one or two attendees. Stark looked out at a couple dozen souls and wondered if they were here in support of Klein or to finish him off. He’d find out soon enough.
The commission members were all there, seated and quiet, ready to go. Absent was the usual jovial banter—in its place, a thick tension. This wasn’t unexpected, but it was rare and so odd to experience.
Stark’s metal chair was at a folding table to the side of the commission. The members he advised were seated in high-backed chairs behind a long, curved tabletop on a platform noticeably elevated from everyone else. A microphone and name plate sat in front of each, adding to the power dynamic between public officials and the plebes who would be invited to address them at the podium.
Chris Ekte was leaning back, his large mass tempting the laws of physics keeping his chair upright. Next to him was Rob Freehet, who Stark noticed was absently browsing through his packet, avoiding eye contact with anyone out in the crowd. On the opposite side of the chairman, Nancy Hjerne looked straight out at the audience, a purposeful expression on her face. Her unyielding posture told everyone that she was ready. Left of Hjerne was Ashley Bare, who was browsing on her phone while she lightly bit her lower lip.
What a strange and interesting group, Stark thought.
He nodded at the chair, Keith Nair, who pounded the gavel to kick off the meeting.
“I call this meeting to order,” Nair stated. “Please rise for the pledge of allegiance.”
Stark suppressed a smile while he rose to his feet. In a normal meeting, the room would be empty—or near empty—and the drama of the pledge would be more of a comedy. The flag was directly behind Nair, about two feet from the back of his chair. The act of getting out of his chair, then turning around to face the flag, left the pudgy bureaucrat standing mere inches from the stars and stripes. The effect was that the rest of the room pledged allegiance to Nair’s backside, which wasn’t exactly something anyone wanted to stare at for nine seconds.
That night, however, the pledge would be the first test, providing an indication of how the evening would unfold. Ekte was passionate about the pledge, standing rigidly with his hand over his heart, pausing dramatically in the middle to emphasize “under God.” His colleagues allowed him to set the cadence and tempo, with Freehet and Hjerne showing the appropriate amount of deference for small town culture. It was Bare, on the far left, who threatened to set a combative tone early.
At prior meetings, Bare had refused to stand for the pledge, citing a litany of injustices that prevented her from participating in good faith. When that caused an uproar among her colleagues and others in attendance, she decided to face the flag and kneel, which only made matters worse. Stark and Hjerne chatted with her after one meeting and she seemed to grasp that her role on the planning commission was undermined, not enhanced, by her protests. The past few meetings, she had chosen to stand silently while others recited the pledge. Stark had no idea what she would do tonight.
Bare rose slowly from her chair, turned toward the flag, and bowed her head. Slumping and with her hands at her sides, she rocked slowly back and forth, silent while the assembled crowd joined the rest of the commissioners in proclaiming their fealty to the nation’s flag. That was a good sign, Stark thought. Bare wasn’t here looking for a fight. The night might go okay, after all.
With the pledge completed, the planning commission made quick work of approving the agenda, past minutes, and a couple of minor matters before turning to the main event: the series of applications from Prosperity Unlimited to build a High Value grocery. Nair turned to Stark and asked him to go over the staff report.
“Thank you, Mr. Chair.” Stark leaned into his microphone as he spoke. Professionally, and as dispassionately as possible, he went through the technical details of the three requests. There was a variance from the code for impervious coverage, a variance to the parking requirements, and a conditional use permit for a grocery store. The room was unusually quiet and attentive, and he suspected that this was the first most of them were learning of what was actually being requested.
“Procedurally, I’d recommend dealing with the variances first, since they require a supermajority to approve and, without their approval, the conditional use request cannot be properly considered.”
Stark thanked the chair and indicated that he would be happy to take any questions from commission members. As he expected, Hjerne was the first to speak.
“Mr. Chair,” she said, exuding confidence and far more authority than Nair. “I’d like to understand the staff’s assertions on impervious coverage. This property is halfway in and halfway out of the shoreland area. How do we calculate the coverage limit in such a situation?”
Of course, Stark was prepared to answer this question. The ordinance was clear: In the case where a single property contained two zoning classifications, the stricter standard applied throughout. Hjerne knew this—she had relied on it many times to defeat proposals she didn’t like—but Stark explained it to the assembly, nonetheless.
When he was done, though, Hjerne shook her head. “I’m not sure that’s correct,” she said bluntly, and suddenly, Stark felt all eyes in the room shift to him. He checked the astonished expression on his face.
What did she mean, “that’s not correct?” Of course it was correct.
“It seems more proper to me that, when it comes to impervious coverage, the portion within the shoreland area would need to meet the shoreland standard, but the portion outside would not. Have you done the calculation that way?” She asked, knowing with certainty that he had not. Why would he have? It wasn’t what their code said.
“Commissioner Hjerne, I have not done that calculation. I am not sure…”
Hjerne cut him off. “I’d like to see you do that calculation and bring it back to us at the next meeting.”
Next meeting? That caught Stark off guard. Hjerne was playing a long game, already preparing for round two when the opening bell on round one had just been rung.
Freehet spoke up next. “I think our ordinance is clear, Nancy. The stricter standard applies. I’m not sure what it gains the conversation to go through the effort of putting that together.”
“I appreciate your comment, Commissioner Freehet,” Hjerne responded, coldly. “The planning commission ultimately decides how the ordinance is interpreted and applied. I’d like to know the numbers before we make a decision.”
There was a long silence while Hjerne and Freehet stared at each other, the rest of the room waiting to see who would speak next. It was Nair who ultimately broke the standoff.
“Are there any more questions of staff?”
Regaining himself, it was Freehet who asked for the floor. “Mr. Chair, I’d like to hear Justin elaborate on the hardships here. I had a difficult time identifying a unique hardship for either of these variances.”
He had a difficult time, Stark thought, because there was no hardship. The question signaled that Freehet was looking for a reason to oppose the variances. That made sense; Klein was his close friend. Lack of a unique hardship was the easiest route to a denial.
“As you all know,” Stark said, mostly for the benefit of the crowd, “to approve a variance, there needs to be a hardship—some reason unique to this property that makes strictly applying the code impractical. I have not identified such a hardship, but I encourage you to hear from the applicant before you formally make such a finding.”
The developer that submitted the applications, Brad Riese with Prosperity Unlimited, straightened his sport coat and started to rise from his folding chair. Freehet preempted his testimony.
“Before we hear from the applicant, I’d like to know if we’ve heard from natural resources.”
“If you look in your packets,” Stark replied, “you’ll see a letter from Water Specialist Mike West.” Stark displayed a copy of the letter on the overhead for the audience to view. As usual, the letter from natural resources provided no guidance or helpful insight. The Nature Resources Department has concerns about water quality impacts and urges caution when considering this request, it said. Stark tried his best to summarize West’s comments without demeaning them.
When he had finished, Freehet stated, “Without a hardship, and with natural resources having concerns, I don’t see how we can approve a variance for impervious coverage.” Stark knew this was insincere—Freehet often voted to ignore the facile concerns of Mike West—but it was solid ground to vote down the High Value, which seemed to be the direction Freehet wanted to go.
“Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to hear from the applicant,” Nair stated, uncharacteristically asserting himself. “Mr. Riese, would you please come up to the podium?”
And then, the meeting became a circus.