High Value, Chapter 6: Zoning Issues

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“What exactly are the zoning issues?” Keith Nair asked.

Justin Stark had gone through the plans the day prior to the meeting and was now even more apprehensive about it. He wasn’t sure how the planning commission members were going to react to it. 

The two pro-business commissioners—Rob Freehet and Chris Ekte—would generally support a proposal like this one but, in this particular case, it wasn’t that clear. Freehet was close friends with Brendon Klein, the owner of Klein’s Family Grocery, and there was little doubt that Klein would be vocally opposed to any project that welcomed a competitor to town. 

Ekte was pro-business, and his wife worked at Klein’s, but he was also a stickler for following the rules. “Treat everybody the same,” he would often say, a little dogmatically at times. Unfortunately, the High Value proposal would require a lot of rule-stretching. This made Ekte a huge unknown.

Stark could read the body language of Nancy Hjerne. She was the commission’s most powerful member and it was clear she wanted to find a way for the store to be approved. That was more than a little disorienting, because she also fought for many of the rules that High Value ran afoul of. Her apparent enthusiasm only added to the mystery of the eventual outcome.

And, in terms of mystery, there was none greater than Ashley Bare. Who knew what she would do? Stark liked her because she had a big heart and a lot of passion, but it was maddening sometimes trying to anticipate the questions she might bring on any particular proposal.

For Stark, the pre-submission meeting was a little about receiving guidance for how to present a proposal to the broader planning commission. He began flipping through the pages of the plans on the table, stopping on a sheet that contained an overall diagram of the site. The outlines of the proposed High Value building were visible along with the parking lot, approach street, and boundary limits of the Anderson property.

“The first issue is one of impervious coverage,” Stark began. “The site is in the shoreline zone and so the ordinance allows the buildings, parking, and anything that sheds water to cover up to twenty percent of the site. They can go up to thirty percent in this zone if they provide a drainage plan, which they have.”

Stark flipped a few pages to a sheet showing the site’s topography with a series of drainage ponds imposed on it. The diagram didn’t mean much to Nair or Hjerne, but it demonstrated to Stark that the project would retain the hundred-year storm event—a rain event that had only a one percent likelihood of occurring in any given year—which technically exceeded the requirements of the city. There was a reason Brad Riese’s team had made the extra effort.

“While they can go up to thirty percent coverage, their submission is at 40.3 percent,” Stark said, looking across the table at Riese as he spoke, silently signaling to him the need to make his own case for the proposal.

“I recognize that this is not a minor variance from the code,” Riese said. “We’ve gone ahead and designed for the hundred-year rain event, which is double what you now require, to ensure we have no stormwater impact.”

“I thought commercial property allowed fifty percent coverage,” Hjerne stated.

“That is true outside of the shoreline zone,” Stark answered. “The coverage limit on this site is a state mandate and so we are required to notify them if we go forward with this plan as shown here.”

“So, this will require a variance,” Nair asked.

“Yeah,” Stark replied. “That’s one of the variances.” There was a pause, not necessary for dramatic effect, although it came across that way. “The other is for parking.”

Hjerne rolled her eyes. She had been fighting for years to have the parking requirements reduced or even eliminated, but had been opposed at every turn. Freehet and Ekte were against the change, as were most of the business owners in town. Hjerne didn’t understand why, since parking reform would benefit them most. And weren’t they against regulation of businesses?

Only Bare had voiced support, which didn’t help matters much, especially after Bare brought some video to one meeting of a professor from California—a guy who looked like Santa Claus—talking about parking meters in San Francisco. Even though the guy was smart, Bare’s presentation of his work didn’t play well with the crowd in Chippewa Lakes.

Riese turned to a sheet showing a closeup of the parking lot. “With a facility the size we are proposing, your ordinance requires 92.4 parking stalls. We are proposing to provide seventy-eight.”

“So, that’s another variance,” Nair stated.

“It is, yes. We decided to go this route because, the more spaces we add, the more our coverage goes over the limit,” Riese said. “We would like the full ninety-two stalls and perhaps even more, but we can get by with seventy-eight in the interest of reducing that overall surface coverage.”

Two variances from the code. The size of the store meant that a special use permit was required. That meant a notice in the paper, the formal notification of neighbors, and a public hearing. A special use permit for a grocery store was bound to be controversial on its own, but two variances in addition raised the stakes considerably. Stark wanted to make sure that was understood by everyone.

“The store is going to be a hard sale. I’m not judging your request negatively, but I’ve told you” (Stark looked directly at Riese) “that Brendon Klein has a lot of friends in this community. His family has been here a long time. They’re not going to all accept this without strong objection.”

“Sure,” Hjerne butted in, “but this is the market speaking. If we are going to have the kind of competitive business community that we all want, then we have to welcome outside competition. It’s not for us to step in and stop it.”

“I understand, Nancy,” Stark said, noting how Hjerne, no natural friend of the business community in town, had suddenly started singing from their hymnal. “If they weren’t asking for two variances from the code, it would be a simple majority vote and I’m sure this would be easily approved. The variances both need four out of five votes, and that’s going to be an uphill battle.”

“We want to approach the planning commission with this application,” Riese said, emphasizing the word “this” by placing both hands on the set of plans. “My client believes there are so many positive intangibles for Chippewa Lakes with this project that everyone is going to be interested in working out the details.”

“I think that’s right,” Hjerne nodded. “Justin, besides the coverage and the parking issues, is there anything else that could be a stumbling block on this one?”

“Yeah, there’s the obvious contradiction with the comprehensive plan.”

Stark let that observation hang in the air for a while just to punish Hjerne with it. After all, she had been the primary community leader working on the new plan. As a result of her persistence and hard work, it had been adopted only six months earlier. The plan created a twenty-year vision for the growth and development of Chippewa Lakes. As its main champion, Hjerne certainly was aware of the major contradictions with the High Value proposal.

“The comprehensive plan that was just adopted was very clear on a number of things,” Stark continued. “The first and most obvious is that it calls for a prohibition on big box stores. The plan goes into great detail about their low financial productivity, their high cost of services, the environmental impacts, and the damage to the local business community.”

“Okay, but none of that is in the zoning code,” Hjerne stated, a technically astute observation that came across as more than a little devious. Chippewa Lakes fell outside of the state’s mandated planning area and so, unlike more urban and suburban communities within the state, their plan was not binding. It was more “advisory” in nature. Hjerne knew this but had kept quiet about it when others hadn’t, times when she wanted them in the dark. 

“That’s true,” Stark said, exasperated. “As you know, we are working on rewriting the zoning code to conform with the new plan. Even though the plan isn’t binding here the way it is in the metro region, one of the requirements of both a variance and a special use permit is compatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan. There would be few things more contradictory than a High Value grocery in a new big box store on the Anderson property.”

Hjerne looked off into the distance, sifting through her thoughts. Riese took the opportunity to help her avoid making connections.

“Certainly, we respect the plan that the city has put together. We also respect the rules and procedures of the city. If we had come in, say, six months from now and the rules were different, we accept that we would be treated by those new rules. But we have to go on what is in the code now, not what we might wish was there or what might be there in the future.”

“That’s technically correct,” Stark said. “And it is something that could be overcome more easily if it were not for the two variances. Those variance requests create a high bar, and I don’t want to pretend that they don’t.”

Stark was perceptive enough to read the room and knew that he was raining on Hjerne and Riese’s parade. He wasn’t the kind of city planner that would die on a metaphorical hill; he had witnessed too many of those kinds of professionals and they were almost universally ineffective. He also was not one to pretend that he knew more than the officials he served nor that he should be the one making the decisions. His role was to give good advice and leave the final decision making to others.

“The comprehensive plan also has specific language about preserving downtown businesses, not allowing strip commercial development, and being very strict on coverage limits in the shoreline area,” Stark added.

“There is no guarantee that High Value coming into Chippewa Lakes is going to put Klein’s out of business,” Hjerne stated. She wanted to believe that even though it was obviously absurd.

Stark continued. “The only other issue is the sewer and water. There are no utilities at the site and so there will need to be an extension. Mike has said that they can do that through the church property, but that means the church will get an assessment and they are not going to like that.”

Mike Avfall was the city’s maintenance chief. He was a very friendly guy, which was how he kept his job despite being both lazy and lacking in intelligence.

“I have a meeting with the church later this afternoon,” Riese said. “We are not going to ask them to incur any costs on our behalf. I’m sure we can address that.”

“Either way,” Stark continued, “the city engineer is looking at the plans and is going to have a recommendation for the meeting. We have the benefit-cost analysis we’ll have to run, and I’ll work with the engineer to have that done, as well. That’s all I have, Keith.”

“Thank you, Justin. This has been very helpful,” Nair stated. Turning to Riese, he continued, somewhat mechanically. “Mr. Riese, thank you for taking the time to come to a pre-submission meeting. It has been very helpful. We look forward to seeing you at the public hearing. Please continue to work with our staff between now and then.”

Riese shook hands with everyone, bringing the meeting to a close.

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