Still Living in a War Zone

Planning Comm Mtg KBJR-TV

The Duluth Planning Commission. Image by KBJR-TV.

The rezoning plans for my neighborhood in Duluth are still alive. (For background info, see my previous post.)

The process is dragging out. Plans to rezone parts of Kenwood from Traditional Residential to Mixed Use Neighborhoods (and thus open them up to commercial developments) were supposed to be voted on at a planning commission meeting last month. But that meeting got postponed until this month.

In some ways, the delay is good because we were able to notify more neighbors about the plans. I drafted a form letter and distributed it to help give my neighbors ideas on how to respond to the commission, and they distributed it to other neighbors who were interested. We also had neighborhood meetings as part of National Night Out, and invited our city councilor to attend and offer advice on how to organize. (He is not in favor of the plans.)

In other ways, the delay is bad because it just drags out the uncertainty longer. At least one home on my street has been put up for sale because of the impending rezoning. I have delayed a much-needed backyard landscaping project because I don’t want to invest a bunch of money in a house that might one day overlook a parking lot or a bunch of business dumpsters instead of the current nicer view of my neighbors’ homes and large trees.

The fight also wears people down, so I’ve been careful not to let it consume me too much. I only pay attention to it when I have to. I’d much rather pay attention to Duluth’s ephemeral summer outdoor activities.

Things came to a head earlier this week when the rezoning plan was brought before the planning commission for a vote. Dozens of my neighbors packed the top floor of Duluth City Hall in the city council chambers, which are not air conditioned and were easily ninety degrees. Lucky me had the joy of hot flashes added on top of that.

True to form with this process, the first part of the meeting dragged out. We sat on the hard wooden benches for two hours before our rezoning issue was brought forward. It took so long that our city counselor had to leave for another engagement and wasn’t able to speak on our behalf. I was so disappointed in that!

The meeting was also held on primary voting night. Who does things like that? It almost makes one wonder if the planning department was trying to bring up the issue on a night when people had conflicts.

In the letter we received informing us of the delay in the meeting date, the planning commission threw us a bone, perhaps because they were receiving so many letters in opposition to the rezoning. They offered to “downzone” two outer areas in our neighborhood that currently could feature commercial development, in effect, making them Traditional Residential Neighborhoods in exchange for “upzoning” my neighborhood and several surrounding areas.

This downzoning was the first of our neighborhood issues brought before the council. During the public hearing time, nobody spoke in opposition to this move, although one planning commissioner was concerned that approving it would “tie the city’s hands” in terms of future development options, depending on what happened with the discussion of “upzoning” our neighborhoods.

So the issue was combined with the discussion of our neighborhoods. The commission gave first speaking rights to those in favor of the rezoning. Only one person spoke: Dave Holappa, a realtor who owns a house in the rezoning area. He whined (it’s my blog, so I can have opinions!) that when he bought the house in 2006, comments by city staff gave him the impression that rezoning would happen faster than it has. It’s pretty obvious that he wants to buy more properties in the neighborhood so that he can sell them to a developer because “developers want a significant land parcel in place.”

Then came the time for those opposed to the project to speak. Five people did so. The first was Jim P. who lives in my neighborhood. He eloquently said that it makes no sense to allow for the possibility of commercial development in a healthy, functioning neighborhood with families. He stressed the city’s need for single-family housing, of which our neighborhood has plenty.

“Development would totally change the neighborhood,” he said. “Why take an achieved goal to try and reach another goal? You’re telling our neighborhood that our homes are not as important as more commercial development.” He stressed that our neighborhood already has enough such developments (Kenwood Village, the shopping mall, a Walgreens, etc.)

As Jim left the podium, he asked all of those in the room who agree with him to stand. In a moving show of solidarity, almost everyone did. I suspect those who didn’t were in the room for other issues on the agenda. (Oh, and I bet Dave Haloppa didn’t stand.)

The next speaker was Tom B. He said that there’s already a lot of apartment buildings in the neighborhood and that it can’t sustain more. Right now, the area has many good neighbors and that the rezoning proposal would not make for good neighbors.

The third speaker was Chad R., who lives in a street behind Kenwood Village, a new apartment development. He listed all the problems that the new development caused for residents of his street, punctuating each one with a tap of his finger on the podium. He argued that the issues caused by previous developments need to be solved before new developments are built. The audience applauded him when he was done.

Another speaker made the point that traffic in the neighborhood is so bad it already takes him ten minutes every day just to get out of his driveway. Because there’s no development project pending for the rezoning area, he didn’t see the necessity of pre-emptive rezoning.

After a lengthy discussion, the planning commission decided they needed more information to make their decisions. They tabled both rezoning issues as topics for a “brown bag discussion.” They will be taken up again next month.

So, the good news is that after we all passed three hours sweating and gaining sore butts from sitting on those hard benches, the rezoning didn’t pass. The bad news is that the war will be dragged out even longer. But at least the commission is taking the matter seriously and is putting time into it.

As I left the building, one of my neighbors commented, “If this is government at work, then it’s obvious that government needs a better budget for air conditioning!”

That, at least, I can agree with. And I’m going to bring a pillow to the next meeting.

3 thoughts on “Still Living in a War Zone

  1. I have been at many meetings in the past 5 years working o the ross City Trail and saving the tracks the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad run on. Two consecutive Parks Commissions meetings ran 5-1/2 hours with ours the last on the agenda both following Lower Cogndand PArk issues. Yes, the City must plan these meetings to wear folks out. How else can one explain the obvious?
    Good job….the other bad news that you did not mention is that the Planning Commission’s role is only advisory to the council and administration. So in our case, we got the Parks Commission to cast a historic vote. They voted down a park’s department plan for a parking lot and road to reach down to the green space of Tallas Island for a Spirit Launch Park (aka Kayak Bay) plan so that is the first no vote in the PC history. The administration pushed it forward to the council at the very next meeting. We meet with a majority of the council yet they fell in line with a hidden agenda (I can verify this but it would take too much time here) and voted 7-2 passing it. No EAW has be done as well. Message to you is, this is the first step next comes the council. Good news is that there is no developer on hand so I think you will get what you want bt it comes with way too much work and stress. Good luck!

    How would you like to help a train and the Western Water Front Trail expansion?

    • Hi Mike. I was glad to see progress on the railroad historic designation. Yes, I’m aware of the city council’s role — am saving description of that for a future post. Isn’t local politics interesting? Full of intrigue and drama! Thanks for your well wishes.

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