Small lot re-appears on Scandia Planning Commission’s plate

Board tells new owners to revise plans for large house

 In 2008 the Scandia council voted to grant variances to allow building a big house on a small lot in the Bliss Addition on Big Marine Lake, even though the planning commission had voted 4 to 1 to recommend denial.

The house at 19107 Layton Avenue was never built, and the still-vacant lot sold for $220,000 last August.

Now new owners Bryan and Karen Crane are asking for variances.

They came before the planning commission just when that group was dealing with the Zavoral Mine conditional use permit application.

At the Jan. 2 planning commission meeting, the Cranes were given a limited time to present their case so the planning commission could devote most of the meeting to mine issues.

When they came back for the Feb. 13 planning commission meeting, their expectation was that this time they would be given plenty of time to speak.

The Cranes are seeking four variances. One is for lot size. In the shoreland overlay district the minimum lot to build a house is 2.0 acres; theirs is 0.31 acre.

They also need variances from the required setbacks from the ordinary high water level (30 feet instead of 100) and from the Layton Avenue right-of-way line (28.8 feet instead of 40).

Other lots in the Bliss Addition have been granted similar variances, and the city is inclined to grant them for these nonconforming lots that were created in the 1960s, before current rules were in place.

The fourth variance, regarding lot coverage, is the problem. A house with large roof area, deck and paved driveway causes rain water to run rapidly into the lake instead of being absorbed naturally by the soil.

In Scandia the maximum portion of the lot that can be covered with hard surfaces is 25 percent. With 1,824 square feet of house and 729 square feet of deck, the proposed house exceeds the maximum. At the Jan. 2 meeting the planning commission recommended that the applicants change the house plans to come closer to the requirements.

At the Feb. 13 meeting, the proposed septic tank and well had been moved, as requested. (The city has determined that the house can hook up to the city sewer system on Big Marine Lake, but a holding tank is required.)

But the lot coverage was still too high.

In the shoreland district only the area above the ordinary high water mark is included in calculating the hard cover percentage. The previous owner used 10,350 square feet as the total, but the new owners said the actual total is 10,500 square feet, if a small peninsula is included.

Between the two planning commission meetings, on Jan. 15 representatives of the new owners asserted that the shoreland ordinance does not apply because the lot was created before that ordinance was adopted. On Jan. 16 the city attorney wrote a letter saying the shoreland ordinance does indeed apply.

The applicant also requested that the city give credit for pervious surfaces, which let some water through. Because these tend to become compacted and filled in over time, the city and the watershed district do not allow this.

Commissioner Peter Schwarz explained, “That was denied because they don’t remain pervious. The city would have to inspect them because they need to be maintained over time. The reason it’s not in there is because we didn’t want it.”

Speaking for the Cranes at the Feb. 13 meeting, Gina Carlson of Architectur tried to convince the planning commission that county and state rules should apply and that the entire lot, not just the portion above the ordinary high water mark, should be used in calculating the lot coverage.

“I believe it’s regulated by Washington County also,” she said. “Washington County has different setback standards. We can meet the county setbacks.”

When she persisted in this interpretation, Schwarz made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that she apply to Washington County.

Carlson wanted to give a Powerpoint presentation but instead was allowed to orally list any new information. She continued to offer her legal interpretation; the planning commission chair eventually asked her to sit down.

Applicant Bryan Crane said he called the city before buying the lot and was assured that if the new house plans were close to those approved for the previous lot owner, they would be approved.

City Planner Sherri Buss said her actual response was, if the new plan was similar to the old one, “I may be able to recommend it to them. Yours is not similar. I supported the other variances, not the lot coverage requirement. But it is up to the planning commission and council to make the decision.”

Planning Commission Chair Christine Maefsky pointed out that the 2008 planning commission recommended denial, “so it’s not a given.”

In the 2008 proposal the previous owner had made changes to achieve a lot coverage under 25 percent. Based on land area above ordinary high water mark, the new plans come in at about 40 percent.

Crane said he was confused. “We were to go from 29 to 25 percent. How did we get to 40 percent?” Buss replied, “I assumed that your surveyor used the ordinary high water mark area.”

Karen Crane reminded the planning commission of the awkwardness of the Jan. 2 meeting, which opened with the variance request but quickly moved on to mine issues. “We had six minutes to talk, and didn’t know we could talk,” she said.

She also expressed her disappointment that the planning commission on this evening was unwilling to hear the architect’s presentation.

“I feel we didn’t get a fair chance to talk openly,” she said. “We thought tonight we would get to go back and forth and answer questions.”

Maefsky replied, “We tried to listen, but didn’t hear anything new.”

Commissioner Steven Philippi explained the planning commission’s role. “We’re obliged to follow the law, as advised by our attorney,” he said. “We’re mostly lay citizens who volunteer to do this. We only make a recommendation to the council, and we do not have the attorney here. We’re not qualified to accept legal interpretation of the code.”

The public interest, he said, is to protect the existing property owners and their current use. “Down the road, when you’re living there, you’ll probably be on the other side of the fence. I hope you understand the importance of this body in being consistent and predictable. It has to be based on the law,” he concluded.

Maefsky said “the interpretation of the law that was presented tonight—in my years on the planning commission, nobody has interpreted the ordinances in that way.”

Philippi also pointed out that taking 2 feet off the house width and depth, getting rid of the storage area and making the deck narrower would bring the lot coverage under 25 percent.

Schwarz said, “The previous owner had plans that were approved. A house can be built there. Maybe not that size.”

Doug Salmela, who owns the property next door, also spoke against the house size. Salmela said he looks forward to having the Cranes as neighbors, but on the exact same lot size he has a 960-square-feet house on one level, with one garage. “Every house in that neighborhood is on a 75-foot lot,” he said. “It can be done.”

Schwarz asked, “If we table it again, will you come back with a new plan that actually meets the requirements? Or should we deny it tonight?”

The planning commission choices were to recommend denial with findings, to recommend approval of setback variances but not lot coverage, or to ask the applicants for a revised construction plan.

The commission voted unanimously to require the applicant to submit a revised plan by Feb. 22 that meets lot coverage requirements, for review at the March meeting.

Outdoor Event

Is a wedding “agritourism” if it happens near a historic barn?

On his 40 acres at 22200 Meadowbrook Ave., Sydney Stephan has held private weddings and a barn dance for Gammelgarden Museum. Now he would like to offer the setting to others.

Before applying for a conditional use permit, Stephan looked at the zoning regulations. He found that no category covers offering his acreage for weddings, fundraisers, company picnics, anniversaries and day retreats. He asked the council to review the topic, and the council referred it to the planning commission.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, City Planner Buss said the closest category in Scandia code is resorts and conference facilities, but it is not a good fit.

Buss said nearby Stillwater Township has a provision for a “ceremony facility,” which has a minimum lot size of 5 acres, prohibits amplified music and overnight accommodations, and requires on-site parking.

Some planning commission members thought an outdoor event center might fit in the agritourism category. Jan Hogle recommending expanding agritourism. “This is where agriculture is going, especially in communities like this” that are rural and close to a metropolitan area, she said. “It’s the wave of the future.”

Chair Maefsky, owner of Poplar Hill Dairy Goat Farm, said the many tours there help keep the farm economically viable.

“Generally, I think it’s a good idea,” she said, but “ultimately, it needs to be the work of a committee.”

Schwarz agreed. “We have worked very long and hard on developing this plan, and I don’t think the four of us should sit here and make a decision,” he said.

The topic will go back to council with the recommendation that the city call for a committee to include members of the council, planning commission and citizens at large. Maefsky and Hogle volunteered to represent the planning commission.

Close Enough?

A homeowner trying to sell his 4.75-acre property in Scandia has found prospective buyers, but they all want to keep horses.

Scandia requires a minimum lot size of 5 acres for keeping any livestock except chickens. The number of horses is determined by the number of acres; there must be at least 2 acres per animal.

With 4.75 acres very close to the minimum, the homeowner asked whether the city might make an exception.

Buss said some cities allow this when a property is very close to the cutoff size, if it is consistent with the community goals and would have no negative effects on surrounding properties.

She asked if the planning commission wants to consider allowing an “administrative deviation” in the code. This would be a shorter process than a variance, with no need to notify the neighbors.

“I would rather address these questions on a case-by-case basis,” Schwarz said. “The reason it’s five acres is because of the amount of droppings. If it’s by a lake, it’s a whole different thing than if it’s in the middle of dry land.”

Philippi said it would be better to let the neighbors know of such a request. He also suggested that allowing deviations can lead to a slippery slope: “Now somebody who has 3.8 acres might want to do it,” he said.

Buss said she will check the code to see if any loosening of the requirements is already allowed.

The property owners could be instructed to pursue a variance.