Neighbor opposed to barn wedding business
Should Scandia code be changed so that a picturesque 40-acre farm with a historic barn can host weddings and other community events?
At the Jan. 8 council work session, Sydney Stephan, 22200 Meadowbrook Ave., said he was considering using his acreage for commercial events such as weddings. But none of the allowable uses in Scandia code match his business plan.
The council referred the matter to the planning commission, the advisory body that reviews land development applications and ordinances governing land use.
When they met on Feb. 13, planning commission members were generally in favor of allowing this use, but they wanted to include community members in the process, especially some who had worked on the most recent comprehensive plan.
The planning commission recommended that the city form an ad hoc committee.
So the issue went back to the council, which has authority to call for such a committee. But at the Feb. 19 council meeting, the council unanimously voted not to approve the committee. Instead, they thought the planning commission itself should take this on.
City Planner Sherri Buss, in introducing the topic to the council, concluded with “if you feel it’s necessary to create another committee.”
Mayor Randall Simonson did not. The council was in favor of allowing the events center, he said, and the planning commission was very well-situated to make it happen. An ad hoc committee would be “another layer of bureaucracy.”
Council member Sally Swanson agreed. She said the applicant had already done a lot of the work, and an ad hoc committee would make this “a longer process than it needs to be.”
Council member Chris Ness voted with the group, but also said the city must make sure the neighbors are heard and taken care of. In the past, he said, there was an issue with truck traffic at this location.
So when they met on March 5, the planning commission was told, “The council has full confidence in the four of you to deal with this without a committee.”
Instead of changing the code, the city could expand the definition of “ag tourism” to include these events. But the city planner pointed that there are currently no performance standards to regulate this use.
Commissioner Peter Schwarz said the city would have to consider the size of the property, dust and parking, days and hours of operation, emergency vehicle access, public safety (need for law enforcement), sanitation, clean-up after the event, the use of amplified sound, the presence of vendors and liability insurance. The term of the licensing permit (by event, or yearly?) would also have to be decided, as well as what events to allow (weddings? birthdays? mazes? art fairs? renaissance festivals?) and what to do if two or three property owners wanted to combine their land to form a larger unit.
Commissioner Steve Philippi added that property taxes on land classified as agriculture are one-sixth the rate of taxes on commercial property.
In conclusion, Schwarz said, “I think we need a committee.”
Planning commission chair Christine Maefsky agreed.
“I felt rather strongly about getting community input,” she said. A committee educating themselves on the issue is a whole different mindset than getting public input from people whose minds are already made up, she added.
An ad hoc committee involves certain expenses, included paying the city planner to come to meetings and paying city staff to keep records. Schwarz was not deterred.
“If we are to consider this kind of thing, it may cost money,” he said.
As he did at the previous meeting, Schwarz recommended specific names of residents who should be invited to serve on the committee. Schwarz said he is not opposed to allowing commercial events in rural areas and it could benefit the community.
Commissioner Jan Hogle replied, “It could be a nightmare.”
Sue Bies, who lives on the adjacent property at 22250 Meadowbrook Ave., attended the March 5 planning commission meeting, as she had the Feb. 19 council meeting. Bies said “I have fought with this man for 22 years” over various issues.
Bies is one of the applicants for the open spot on the planning commission.
After the meeting Stephan said he is surprised by the response to his proposal.
“Neighbors have asked to have their children married in our barn,” he said. “We definitely still want to pursue it.”
Stephan said finding a way to use Scandia’s historic barns and to preserve small family farms fits the city’s expressed goals.
But allowing the use while adding a long list of restrictions “will make it impractical for anybody to use their property for events like this in Scandia.”
Stephan runs Horticulture Services, a landscaping company, from his home.
In separate phone conversations, both Bies and Stephan said the landscaping company does not currently have a lot of trucks. “Most of the truck problem was in the past,” Bies said.
Because Stephan has not officially applied to amend the code, there is no strict deadline for the city to respond to his request.
So the planning commission could continue discussing the issue during their regular monthly meetings, which would not require additional staff time.
Two council members who were at the planning commission meeting, Chris Ness and Dan Lee, said they would support creating an ad hoc committee at the next council meeting.
The planning commission unanimously voted to approve the variances necessary for Brian and Karen Crane to build a new house a 0.31-acre lot on Big Marine Lake.
The Cranes’ revised plans reduced the size of the home and deck, removed an entry walk and stairway, and replaced the driveway with four parallel concrete tracks from the street to the garage.
These changes brought the total impervious surface area to no more than 25 percent.
The variances were for lot size, setback from the ordinary high water mark of the lake, and setback from the road.
On March 19 the variance request will go to the council, which has the final say.
In addition to council approval, the Cranes will need a watershed permit. The watershed district may require that the driving area have sand under the topsoil, and that the rain gardens be large enough to account for any compaction over time.
The planning commission also voted unanimously to support a plan to divide into two lots Mary Lou Simonson’s 30 acres at 14925 Oakhill Road.
A five-acre plot would contain the house, and a 25-acre plot the woods, ponds and wetlands.
In her application, Simonson said no structures or other development are proposed for the 25 acres, which will be used for recreation by the next owner.
Simonson’s daughter Laurie Holton attended the meeting with her husband. Holton said, “We have our home in Harris and we’re happy there.”
Simonson’s neighbor Ray Richardson also addressed the planning commission. He called the request reasonable and said he does not oppose it.
The new lot does not meet the minimum requirements for lot width and road frontage. Drawing the dividing line to meet the frontage requirement would cause the new lot to have less buildable area than is required.
The planning commission recommended approval of the minor subdivision and variances, with conditions that if the vacant 25-acre lot is ever developed, the owner must pay a $3,000 park dedication fee and increase the right-of-way on Oakhill Road (Washington County 52) to 120 feet.
The request will now go before the council.
In other business, the planning commission voted unanimously to keep Christine Maefsky as chair and elected Jan Hogle as vice chair.