Land use application changes proposed

Planning Commission would tackle some issues on which City Council now has final say


Clint Riese
News Editor

What is reasonable? The discussion at City Hall on Jan. 8 sounded fit for a philosophy club, but rather constituted the heart of the matter in a joint meeting of Forest Lake’s City Council and Planning Commission.

The boards were aiming to find consensus on interpretations of state law so they could come to consistent findings regarding variances and other land use application topics. The need to iron out differences came to the forefront late in 2013 when the council approved a pair of variances after the Planning Commission unanimously recommended to deny.

The conversation at the joint meeting resulted in a twist: The council agreed to consider changing the city code to put the decision for many land use application categories in the hands of the Planning Commission.

Addressing differences

Commissioners at the joint meeting aired concerns about the perceived differences in opinion on common land use scenarios.

“Having come at this from the other side of the table, I can tell you that in 37 years, not once did an application for variances filed and then unanimously rejected by the planning commission be ever approved by the city council in any community I’ve worked in, and I’ve worked in 25 different states,” said Dennis Batty, architect and Planning Commission member.

Community Development Director Doug Borglund presented the roles of each group and legislation from 2011 that changed the threshold that applicants had to prove to earn zoning variances.

In the recent cases in Forest Lake, the applicants were building from scratch. Therefore, Batty said, they had a clear opportunity to abide by city code.

“On both of these variances, the overriding issue, to me, was these people came to us and said ‘We have the ability to build a house and meet all the zoning requirements, but we don’t want to,’” Batty said.

Mayor Chris Johnson said the 2011 state law provides much more flexibility in granting variances, and that the key factor in the local cases was reasonability, regardless of whether alternative design options existed.

However, City Attorney Dave Hebert cited a Minnesota Supreme Court decision in which judges said they still factored in whether applicants could complete their project in a revised manner without needing a variance.

Proposed process

After a discussion of land use application requirements, Borglund presented options for streamlining the application process. The changes found general favor, and if approved will mostly resolve the lingering disagreement on how to enforce the law on variance requirements.

Borglund proposed making the Planning Commission the deciding body for variances, site plan reviews, conditional use permits and interim use permits. Applicants could appeal the commission’s decision to the City Council.

The council would retain the final say over several other matters, such as plats, planned unit developments and minor subdivisions.

The council would need to adopt the streamlined process into the city code. No timetable has been set, though city officials are preparing the proposal.