The Neighborhood Rezoning Zombie Apocalypse

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Image from The Walking Dead television series, courtesy of AMC.

One of my blog readers warned me it might not be dead, but I didn’t want to hear. I plugged my ears, closed my eyes and started singing (“La la la la la…”)

But he was correct. The rezoning issue for my neighborhood wasn’t dead. It rose, like a zombie, from the Duluth City Planning Department even though the planning commission voted it down. (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more info about this six-month-long saga.)

As it turns out, this is common practice in my city. The planning commission actions are just considered “recommendations,” not the final word. I wish someone had explained this to us from the beginning.

Thinking you’ve won a fight only to find you need to fight it all over again is disheartening. It also seems like a waste of effort to have every zoning issue heard by two civic groups. Why even have a planning commission then?

Anyway, once I heard that the proposal to rezone our Duluth residential neighborhood for commercial development was going before the city council, I admit, I tucked my head and legs inside my shell and hid for a while. However, in hiding, I regathered my gumption and eventually fired off yet another letter of protest to the city council. But that, and writing blog posts, didn’t seem like enough.

The city council heard the issue during two meetings. I couldn’t make the first hearing (because it happened while I was being a turtle). The same couple of neighbors who spoke before the planning commission spoke before the council. I decided it would be good to add a new voice for the next meeting, and that voice should be mine. If I was going to come out of my shell, I might as well do it up good.

The city council chambers was packed – standing-room-only. Most people were there for another contentious issue that involved a proposal for a new downtown apartment building that did not have any affordable housing units included. Along with a lack of single-family homes (like those in my neighborhood), a lack of affordable housing is a big issue in our city.

The hearing for the apartment building and other city council issues took 3-1/2 hours. We sat there at 10:30 p.m., boiling in our long johns, awaiting our turn. Once the affordable housing protesters left, a good number of my neighbors remained in the chambers.

I ended up as the first signed up to speak for our issue. When my name was called, I took a big gulp, stood, and did my thing. I was too nervous to speak without notes, so I used those as an aid. They also helped me stay within the three-minute speaking limit. My speech went fine, and I was sure glad once it was over! Several other neighbors also spoke.

The city councilors asked questions and a few explained their positions. In the end, they voted UNANIMOUSLY (7-0) to reject the proposal to rezone my neighborhood. I am so thankful that they listened to us and to the planning commission.

Is the zombie rezoning war over? Not if the planning commissioner has his way. He said he plans to bring it up again in a few years because he wants to see “orderly development” of my neighborhood. We neighbors would rather see no development. We are a neighborhood that works. Like I said in my speech, our neighborhood ain’t broke, and this won’t fix it.

This fight seems to have renewed people’s appreciation for our neighborhood. This Christmas, for the first time, carolers came to my door. Another neighbor made luminaries (ice candles) and placed them all along the road to her house, providing a special festive touch.

The zombie is dead for now, but it seems as if the issue is biding its time, waiting for another chance to strike. I hope we’re ready to rally then.

Let’s have some fun with this. Feel free to comment with your favorite zombie-killing techniques. They could come in handy later!

My Neighborhood Rezoning War is OVER!

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One of my neighborhood warriors testifies at a planning commission meeting.

We’re having a party in Marie’s Meanderings Blog world tonight. I just returned from a Duluth Planning Commission meeting where the motion to rezone my residential neighborhood for development was denied.

If you’ve been following this issue on my blog and in the news, you know that this is GOOD NEWS for my neighbors and myself.  (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

It’s been a long five-month haul. I went into this latest planning commission meeting feeling downtrodden and doomed because the planning department had changed their original plans to include even more of my neighborhood in the rezoning. They went from impacting only eight or nine houses to over thirty homes!

I was like, WTH? And one of the new homes included in the rezoning was mine. Before, I was just a few houses away from the proposed rezoning area. Back then, I was protesting on behalf of my neighbors who were directly affected. Now, as if in payback for my squawking, my house was included, too.

So I did my due diligence and wrote another letter urging the commission to deny the rezoning plan. One of the arguments I used was that there is already a shortage of affordable single-family homes in our city. Why potentially remove so many of them? I also repeated my previous argument that the neighborhood is a strong, well-functioning community.

When I arrived at the commission chambers, I was heartened to see it full of my neighbors again. Several spoke well-reasoned and impassioned arguments against the plan. I was so proud of them!

Only one person spoke in favor of the plan, and he is a developer who owns property in the neighborhood.

After some strategic moves and hemming and hawing, which made me wonder if the commission really knew what it is doing, the vote was taken. All but one commission member was opposed to the rezoning plan, so it was denied. Everyone applauded, just like we were in a freakin’ movie. (One with a happy ending.)

The reasons the commissioners gave for the denial were that when the plan was developed that recommended rezoning of my neighborhood, it was in a time before many of the current apartment buildings and business existed. They heard us that “enough development is enough.” The commission didn’t feel the neighborhood could sustain more development without even more traffic problems and other issues occurring.

Another reason given was that my neighborhood is a socially strong, well-functioning place. Why fix what isn’t broken? They also were impressed by the numbers of us who turned out to protest the plans and they wanted us to feel like they were listening.

I am so proud of our planning commissioners! I raise a toast to everyone.

I’m glad this is over and sure hope it doesn’t rear its ugly head in another form.

Still Living in a War Zone

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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.

Living in a War Zone

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Image from a different neighborhood zoning war that occurred in Kentucky, Image courtesy of WPSD-TV.

My neighborhood is in a war. We are not fighting with each other. Instead, we’re fighting against a more elusive and dangerous foe: the specter of commercial development.

We all received letters in the mail from the city planning department, which described a proposal to rezone our neighborhood from a Traditional Residential one to a Mixed Use Neighborhood. This could open up our streets to stores and businesses.

When I bought my house nineteen years ago, one of the major selling points was the “quiet neighborhood” where it was located. Even though it was near a shopping center, on the other side a massive city park offered a bit of wilderness, not to mention periodic backyard visits by deer, bear, and moose.

Friends and acquaintances who heard about my new home congratulated me. “It’s the nicest street,” they said. And it proved true. The street was full of long-term residents who cared about their community and their neighbors. We helped each other during snowstorms, floods, and ice storms.

Even 19 years later with new residents, the helpfulness is still there. My neighbors are invested in their homes and in making the neighborhood a good place to live.

But already, commercial development is encroaching. Two banks and an insurance agency take up one end of the street, which fronts a busy main artery and the shopping center. Basically, the planning agency proposes to extend that business district farther down my street and one block over, rezoning areas where people’s homes currently sit. The rezoning would impact 8 or 9 homes. My home is outside the area by the width of one home.

Our property taxes have increased due to a new apartment and business complex built a block away. I would not be surprised if someone wants to build something similar on my street.

Last week, the planning department held a public meeting about the rezoning proposal. There are three spots they want to rezone. Nobody protested the other two, which are located along already busy streets. All of the discussion focused on the plan for my neighborhood.

Residents, especially the ones in the homes inside the rezoning area, were concerned and angry. Some have already been approached by a developer, who also had the cajones to be at the meeting and to speak in favor of the rezoning. (You should have seen the nasty looks he got! My neighbors might be nice, but not when their way of life is threatened.)

At the meeting, one of my neighbors said that it makes no sense to rezone an established neighborhood to a Mixed Use Neighborhood and invite more development right into the middle of it. I agree with her.

My home was built almost 100 years ago by Swan Gustaf Anderson when he was 72 years old. His $450 mortgage was held by the Supreme Lodge of the Sons of Norway. I am the eighth owner of the house. I’ve been investing a lot in upkeep and remodeling of my home, but if rezoning occurs and a retail or apartment development goes in, I would be a fool to continue making that investment in a property that may one day have a view of dumpsters or a parking lot instead of big trees and homes.

This rezoning idea goes against provisions for Mixed Use Neighborhood development in Chapter 50 of the City of Duluth Legislative Code. One of the purposes of establishing a Mixed Use Neighborhood District is to, “Encourage mixed use redevelopment, conversion and reuse of aging and underutilized areas, and increase the efficient use of commercial land in the city.”

Our neighborhood is not “underutilized.” It is home to families who have lived there many years. Our homes may be aging, but they are all in good shape because we have invested in them. I would also argue that it is not an efficient use of commercial land in the city to displace people from an established neighborhood.

It also goes against one of the governing principles in the city’s comprehensive land use planning document. Principle #5 on Strengthening Neighborhoods says:

The present city is an historical amalgam of villages and other independent units of government, contributing to the present condition of Duluth being strongly defined by its neighborhoods. This condition should be reinforced through land use, transportation and public service delivery patterns which strengthen neighborhood identity. New institutional expansions, major public infrastructure or large commercial or industrial uses should not divide historic neighborhood patterns.

Allowing a commercial development right in the middle of our neighborhood is no way to strengthen it.

Fighting a zoning war is not how I wanted to spend my summer, but it’s necessary, I guess. Here we go!