Comp plan process gives voice to community

Over the next two years, Forest Lake residents will have the opportunity to weigh in with their vision of the city and what they would like it to offer and look like.

That process will begin for the public in earnest on April 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at an open house for the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

Cities within the seven-county Minnesota metropolitan area prepare a comprehensive plan every 10 years. A comprehensive plan documents the city’s long-term expectations and goals on a variety of city planning fronts, from housing to parks to roads to utilities, through the next two decades. The plan will ultimately be approved by the City Council and the Metropolitan Council, but not before being drafted by a task force of people representing city, the business community, the school district, community youth and other demographics – as well as by input from any community member interested in weighing in on what Forest Lake can or should become.

“It’s kind of a re-examination of what growth … you think is going to occur (and) how you want to manage that growth,” Zoning Administrator Donovan Hart said. “Every 10 years, municipalities and counties get a great chance to assess themselves, (to ask,) ‘How are we doing?’”

Previous comprehensive plans have included pieces of city projects that have now borne fruition, like the Broadway redevelopment or the construction of a community center (the YMCA).

One of Hart’s favorite things about the comprehensive plan process is finding out what is on residents’ minds as the biggest areas for change or improvement in a city. He said it can be hard to “rub the crystal ball” to see what is important to people, but he imagined that one potentially hot topic might be alternative or new ideas about housing – particularly a renewed focus on multigenerational housing.

Hart said that children are often staying at home longer than they used to and that elderly parents are sometimes moving in with their children. In most cases, Forest Lake currently only allows one house per lot, which disallows separate but connected residences for adult children or so-called “granny pods” – smaller housing units where an elderly relative can live on the same property. The city could change its policies on such housing, as well as on other alternative housing like the “tiny house” trend, should the research and feedback process for the comprehensive plan show that those types of housing are or will be in demand in the city. The plan will also attempt to project where housing and other development will be in demand in the city in order to plan an orderly expansion of city services to burgeoning population areas.

Another housing-adjacent issue the comprehensive plan may tackle is the keeping of domesticated animals. Beyond the more typical pets, residents are currently allowed to keep pigeons and chickens, with restrictions.

“I think there will be more discussion around beekeeping or the keeping of potbelly pigs,” Hart predicted.

The comprehensive plan explores topics far beyond just residential rules. Hart said other parts of the plan that may get an extensive look include how to offer more incentives for active living into city infrastructure, how to make the city more conducive to public transportation, how to move to a more individualized approach for properties to deal with water runoff and how to attract businesses to the area.

On the topic of business attraction, Hart said one area that will likely receive focus during the process is how to revitalize the downtown.

“Does retail bring people downtown, or does having more residences (bring) people downtown and create that commercial base?” Hart said, noting that the coming Lighthouse Lofts apartment complex will likely be a case study in answering the question. To transform the area, which includes several old buildings, some of which are unoccupied or not fully occupied, he estimated that a broad community or governmental push might be required to effect change – perhaps even similar to the pushes that brought the YMCA or the new city center to town.

“There’s fundamental market dynamics that would need to be overcome,” he said, adding that those who weigh in on the comprehensive plan will have to decide whether such an effort is a priority to them. “In many cases, there may be a unified vision that can be created.”

The comprehensive plan will be finalized by the council at the end of 2018, but the public input process begins now. The April 19 open house at the Forest Lake City Center will include an outlet for feedback on what residents would like to see in the city’s future, and throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, the city will be getting feedback at various community forums like churches or at the weekly Arts in the Park event at Lakeside Memorial Park. In the fall, the plan’s task force will submit some draft text that will receive feedback from the council and residents, including focused public discussions on individual facets of the plan. In the beginning of 2018, the city will begin refining the plan before sending it to the Met Council for feedback, ultimately approving a final plan by the end of the year. Hart said he is excited for digital feedback outlets that will be new to Forest Lake this year, like an interactive map on which residents can point out specific areas that they would like to address. Most importantly, however, he’s eager to hear what’s on the community’s mind.

“It’s a community visioning exercise,” he said. “(The plan) is an effort at transparency in government. Really asking people, ‘What do we want? How are we doing? Are we serving you as residents and businesses?’”