High Value, Chapter 9: Nancy Hjerne

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“Thank you, Mom. Tell Dad it will only be until I can get back on my feet.” Nancy Hjerne heard a faint sniffle on the other end of the line. Her daughter, Amanda, was getting a divorce. Truth be told, Hjerne was happy they were splitting, though she wouldn’t say it aloud for a long time. She had never really liked Olivia’s husband, the cocky lawyer with the degree from a modest, Midwestern university. That he had cheated on Olivia with another young lawyer only affirmed Hjerne’s initial misgivings.

“Sweetie, it’s okay. This is your home and you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like,” she told her daughter.

Again, she would never say it out loud, but Hjerne wasn’t exactly thrilled to be welcoming her only offspring back home. She kind of liked being an empty nester. She had poured everything into raising Olivia but, once she’d followed in her mom’s footsteps and graduated from Wellington Academy with a degree in education, Hjerne felt her duties were complete.

Hjerne hung up the phone and paused to stare out the set of custom windows she had installed the prior summer. The windows were expensive, for sure, but so worth it. They provided a grand view of the lake. And, almost as important, they looked impressive from the lake—better than the windows in the original cabin she and her husband had purchased when they’d first moved to the town.

They enjoyed life on the lake, entertaining guests with pontoon rides or drinks on the back deck. Being a teacher gave her plenty of time in the summer to enjoy her passions: advocating for the environment, supporting the lake, and volunteering on various committees. Hjerne combined all three into a gala event she hosted annually in the backyard to raise money for the lake association’s shoreline restoration efforts. The last event barely broke even, but it was a heck of a party.

Hjerne grabbed a glass of wine and sank down into her reading chair, relaxing in a way that was difficult to do when others were around. Poor Olivia, she thought. Poor me, quickly followed. It would all work out, but the guest room was now going to be occupied for the time being and that cramped her style.

The bound staff report for the upcoming Chippewa Falls planning commission meeting was sitting on the mahogany coffee table right in front of her. Hjerne picked it up and started to thumb through it.

Part of being the most effective commissioner was outworking everyone, and that meant spending the time to know exactly what was in the staff’s recommendation, the city’s ordinances, and any other document that might be useful in a fight.

People like Chris Ekte were always a step or two behind her because they didn’t bother to read the official packet before the meeting. It was sent out a week before; there was plenty of time. Of course, to read the packet, you needed to be able to read. That was mean, Hjerne thought, but it also made her smile. Dumb ice man.

At least she knew where Ekte stood on things. Her main ally on the planning commission, Ashley Bare, was a bewildering mystery sometimes. They seemed to agree on the need to protect the environment, improve lake water quality, and make good public investments, but randomly Bare would do something strange, like vote to end discussion on the sign ordinance Hjerne had worked so hard on. It felt spiteful, and Hjerne couldn’t help but feel that Bare would stab her in the back—metaphorically but also perhaps literally—if given the chance.

Hjerne opened the packet wide and turned to the section on High Value. Justin Stark’s reports were always professional, put together with a sense of order and dispassionate competence reflective of the planner’s general demeanor. Hjerne liked Stark, but she didn’t fully trust him to be a team player. She was a little nervous about how he was going to approach the High Value request.

Those apprehensions were quickly justified. The report started out with a summary section describing the application—40,000-square-foot big box store, $6 million investment, new jobs—and then got into the three specific requests: a variance for lot coverage, a variance for parking, and the conditional use permit. Stark’s report didn’t cloud the issues.

On lot coverage, the report went into detail on the shoreland zone and the state’s water quality regulations, which limited how much ground could be covered by building and materials that shed water. Hjerne was normally a major proponent of the shoreline regulations, sometimes zealously insisting that they were a minimum standard, that the city had an obligation to be more restrictive when the situation warranted.

Obviously, this was not one of those situations. The High Value site was only partially in the shoreland area, a fact that Stark noted but, annoyingly, didn’t emphasize. Hjerne looked out the window again, toward the water, and crafted an argument in her head. In the shoreland zone, 30% coverage was allowed. Outside, it went to 50%. The High Value was part in and part out, so their request for 40.3% coverage was kind of splitting that baby. Nobody would be happy, but since she was generally the stickler on these environmental regulations, if she supported granting the variance, she was sure the others would go along.

Unsurprisingly, the natural resources department was yet to submit their thoughts. They seemed to always wait until the last minute, and even then their comments were generally worthless. Hjerne thought back to the fight she had with her redneck neighbor the year after they’d purchased the cabin. He thought it would be nice to cut down a bunch of trees on his lot and put rip rap—large boulders—along his shoreline. Hjerne went to war, stopping the contractor before even one tree was felled with a cease-and-desist order from Stark’s office, followed by a lengthy permitting process that was ultimately denied. Mike West, the local resource officer, was no help then. Hopefully he would stay out of the way this time.

The second issue was parking and here Stark’s analysis was really irking her. Hjerne hated the city’s parking requirements. Paving paradise and putting in a parking lot undersold the extent of the waste and environmental destruction parking spaces created. And for what? In Chippewa Falls, almost all parking spots were empty almost all of the time. Why did the city mandate that businesses build even more?

Along with Bare, Hjerne had fought for years to get the city’s parking requirements repealed. She read with bemusement how, according to their outdated zoning code, High Value was supposed to have 92.4 parking spots. She knew well, as did Stark, that this number was based on nothing remotely scientific. It was a WAG: a wild-assed guess.

While the ordinance required 92 spots, High Value was proposing to only build 78. They would be happy to build all the required parking spots, which also annoyed Hjerne, but adding more spots would hurt their case for an impervious coverage variance—a Catch-22.

On purely environmental grounds, Hjerne was happy to grant the parking variance. Bare would likely agree. It was not clear what Ekte or Rob Freehet would do. They both had a history of granting variances to help businesses, but they also fought to keep the parking requirements. They were small-government, free-market zealots until it came to parking. Then they turned into communists.

Hjerne took a sip of wine and sat back in the chair, letting her back relax a little while she looked at the ceiling. Stark was a problem here. His analysis was very matter of fact and, thus, not really open to much nuance. The ordinance required 92 parking spaces and High Value was only building 78. Since 78 was less than 92, there was a problem. Stark didn’t bother to add any of the mitigating issues Hjerne thought important. She could bring them up, but it was painful to have to spend clout doing that when a more helpful staff could easily take those punches for her.

Hjerne turned to the next page and things only got worse. The conditional use permit High Value required would normally be straightforward. Conditional uses were requests that were allowed, but because they could sometimes cause concerns, they went in front of the planning commission for a public hearing and extra review. Unlike a variance, the assumption in a conditional use request was for approval, with the city able to mitigate any potential problems by adding conditions the applicant must meet. This was a low bar to clear, especially for the professionals employed by High Value.

Except, a conditional use permit also required conformity with the comprehensive plan. Chippewa Lakes had just completed a new plan and Hjerne had led the effort, pushing through several necessary provisions to protect the environment and the community’s character. One of those was a prohibition on new big box stores along the highway. Obviously, that prohibition included a new 40,000-square-foot big box grocery store.

“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 had added. There was some wiggle room here, but Hjerne would lose a lot of credibility pushing for an exception in this case.

At the end of all the analysis, Stark made a final recommendation. It was untypically weak, a signal that he, too, had no clue what the commission was going to do and wanted to stay out of the splash zone. 

“I can’t recommend approval,” Stark wrote, “but if you do wish to approve these variances, you will need to identify the unique hardship that makes it impractical for High Value to meet the city’s code. You will also need to have findings explaining how this request doesn’t contradict with the comprehensive plan.”

The subtext wasn’t lost on Hjerne, and it would also be clear to all her colleagues on the planning commission: We can’t approve these requests. If we do, we are ignoring the zoning ordinance and making a mockery of all the effort that went into the newly adopted comprehensive plan.

Checkmate.

Hjerne tossed the packet on the floor. What a crappy day.

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