Columbus mulls variance request

Land owners along Higgins Lake hope to save tree

Paul Rignell
Columbus Reporter

A certain wetland that borders Columbus and Wyoming may cover enough soil to be considered a lake, but some Columbus city officials and at least one other resident feel Higgins Lake does not allow for the breadth of use and enjoyment of a typical lake.

Thus, they question whether someone planning to build a new home on property over this wetland should be bound by zoning setbacks from a lake.

City residents Greg and Mary Evgen have lived on a five-acre lot on Kettle River Boulevard for 20 years, raising children in a 4,200-square-foot home. Greg Evgen told the Forest Lake Times that he and Mary are now empty-nesters and have spoken for some time about downsizing their living space once their youngest child was out of school (that son is now a college senior).

The Evgens bought five acres with a Lyons Street address on Higgins Lake two months ago and are planning to build a new residence that would total half of their current square footage. Greg said their new property has been listed for sale on and off for at least five years.

Columbus city code requires a building setback of 150 feet from a lake, but the Evgens have sought a variance before working on a new home to preserve a mature tree that measures nearly 15 feet around its base on the land, said Greg, who called the tree “beautiful” and “majestic” in a letter to the Planning Commission and City Council. He told the Times that he had not noticed the tree before the season’s snow cover to identify its leaves, but neighbors have said it is a cottonwood or maple tree.

The Evgens are asking the city for a setback variance of 30 to 40 feet to build their home with a current design and keep the tree. This request must also be approved by the Department of Natural Resources.

Planning commissioners cast a split vote Dec. 19 to deny the Evgens’ variance request, but the City Council cast a split vote Dec. 26 to take a further look at the applicants’ issue. Mayor Dave Povolny joined council members Bill Krebs and Jessie Messina in a majority vote to direct staff to draft a variance resolution for the council to read at a January meeting. Jeff Duraine and Denny Peterson voted to uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation for denial.

“I have a problem with turning this thing down, (because) Higgins Lake is nothing but a big swamp,” Krebs said.

The Evgens were not present at the meeting, but Greg echoed Krebs’ thoughts on the wetland: no one builds docks or drives boats there. Through the times he has passed Higgins Lake on a road, “I’ve only seen water in it two or three of the last 12 years,” Greg said. “You’ll see some guys duck hunting, that’s about it.”

Code requires a variance applicant to prove hardship. Councilmember Peterson couldn’t find one.

“I don’t consider (this tree) a hardship. The Planning Commission didn’t consider it a hardship,” Peterson said Dec. 26.

Peterson added that he would expect the tree to be lost one way or another. In the event that the city and DNR both would approve the Evgens’ hope to preserve the tree during building, Peterson said the impact of construction will likely reach and ruin the roots. “It’s going to affect the wood base,” he said.

Mowing Contract

Outside of city hall, any talk of mowing lawns may have seemed out of place in the first council meeting to follow the official start of winter. But Columbus council members did in fact discuss grass trimming in the city parks Dec. 26, and they elected that night to renew a contract with a private mowing service despite some earlier thought of covering the work with regular city staff.

The city is renewing with RVS Turf and Snow, of Lindstrom, for a sixth consecutive year. The company submitted a low bid of $825 per job for 2013, with two other area firms quoting higher numbers but both below $900.

The bid covers one mowing of all three city parks, including the 22-acre central park on Kettle River Boulevard and the smaller parks totaling 6.5 acres on Howard Lake Drive and 162nd Avenue.

Columbus has an in-house, seasonal employee for park duties each year, but on the payroll no more than 185 days May through October.