At their first meeting of the year on Tuesday, March 6, the Scandia Planning Commission voted to recommend changing the city ordinance on variances.
By granting a variance, the city lets a property owner violate the city’s zoning requirements. For example, the city may grant a variance so that a house can be built on a smaller lot, or a building can be closer to the lot line, than the minimum requirement.
Variances are needed when it is impossible to meet the minimum requirements without rendering the property virtually unusable. But cities also make exceptions for lesser reasons, if enforcing the rules would cause undue hardship for applicants.
In 2010 the Minnesota Supreme Court said the city of Minnetonka should not have granted a variance to add to an existing garage. The court interpreted hardship to mean that without a variance, the garage would not have any reasonable use.
This stricter interpretation made it difficult for cities to grant variances.
In 2011 the state legislature passed a new variance law that replaces “undue hardship” with “practical difficulties.” At last week’s meeting the planning commission reviewed changes to Scandia’s variance ordinance that match the new state law.
The amended ordinance would permit deviations from the development code in instances where their strict enforcement would cause practical difficulties because of circumstances unique to the individual property.
Planning Commission Chair Christine Maefsky summarized the change by saying, “The language we had was subject to the stricter interpretation. If we adopt this, it gives us more leeway to apply the statute as we have been doing.”
As before, variances must be consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, must not alter the character of the neighborhood, and must not be done solely for economic reasons.
The amended ordinance requires that any conditions placed on the variance must be directly related to, and roughly proportionate to, the impact created by the variance. For example, City Administrator Anne Hurlburt said requiring a rain garden when granting a deck variance in the shoreland area would not be allowed if the deck had no affect on lake water quality.
The amended ordinance will go before the Scandia City Council for approval on Tuesday, March 20.
Preserving Scandia’s scenic resources is one goal of the comprehensive plan.
Work on this goal has continued in a committee led by Maefsky. At the March 6 meeting she presented a draft of their guidelines to the planning commission.
As an incentive for preserving scenic views, the city offers developers a chance to add lots, achieving a higher density than otherwise allowed. The committee recommends increasing the density bonus from 10 to 25 percent. This would require a public hearing and council action.
Among the 39 priority sites identified for protection are farmsteads, lake views and woods. Most are located on major highways and county roads.
The guidelines also give specific criteria for designating a scenic site, so that a landowner or developer can apply for scenic viewshed status.
When the guidelines are final, they will not be part of city ordinance but will be referred to, as are the city’s architectural guidelines.
Commission Chair Maefsky and Vice Chair Tom Krinke were unanimously selected to retain these positions for 2012, subject to council approval.
Steve Philippi volunteered to represent the planning commission on the city’s new Wastewater Advisory Committee.