Jane McWilliams, City Council LWV Observer
All commissioners were present except Tracy Davis.
The commission is considering a major change in the city’s land use map as well as the annexation of 530 acres west of the Northfield City Hospital for the purpose of creating a new business park. A proponent of these changes is the city’s Economic Development Authority, which has been working on achieving a better balance between the residential and commercial/industrial tax bases in the city. The 2001 Comprehensive Plan provides that “Economic development creates jobs, tax base, and a strong economy, all of which are vital to Northfield’s future prosperity and quality of life.” The council’s recently adopted land use principles say: “The preference for accommodating future growth is in infill locations . . . When new development occurs at the end of the Community through annexations, it will be done with great care by creating well defined neighborhoods, a green edge or well designed place for commerce, so as not to compromise the rural landscape or small town character.”
Rick Estenson, EDA President, laid out the case for the annexation request. He noted that EDA believes that Northfield has the potential to recruit quality businesses, but first must gain control of some land. The current (2001) comprehensive plan includes in the priority growth area three areas for business park/light industry, one in Bridgewater Township, the second in Waterford Township and about 150 acres west of the hospital in Greenvale Township. Estenson said the EDA envisions a 25 year-plan for the new area, which would include a business park committed to sustainable design, green building principles and one that supports a greenway corridor system. He said that with the proposal of Larry Larson of Land Vista and the three farm families (David Sorem, John Fink and Donald and Ruth Lysne), there is now a preliminary concept to help achieve that vision.
The proposal would bring the three properties, along with another owned by St. Olaf College, into the priority growth area on the new comprehensive plan’s future land use map, and would change the guidance from “Residential Cluster” to Business Park/Light Industry.” (St. Olaf does not intend to develop their land at this time, and is not requesting land use map amendment.) If the commission and the council approve the request, the property owners would at some future time request that the properties be rezoned to an appropriate commercial and/or industrial zoning classification. The staff recommends that the commission be prepared to make a recommendation to the City Council on the request at their meeting on May 13, 2008.
There was standing room only in the council chambers. Following presentations by staff (Dan Olson, City Planner) Mr. Larson and Pete Sandberg (representing St. Olaf) and questions posed by commissioners, 16 citizens addressed the commission.
Former planning commissioner Margit Johnson supports industrial development, but warned that land annexed 10 years for this purpose was eventually rezoned commercial, providing around 40 full time jobs which pay less than industrial probably would have paid. She urged that the commission delete any reference to commercial zoning and do their homework and get satisfactory answers to their questions before making a recommendation to the council.
Olivia Frey said annexing 530 acres would go against the public preference for infill and preservation of green spaces. Instead, industry should be put in the infill areas. The land under discussion should be retained for local farm economy and shouldn’t be paved over. Mike Swift asked whether the property could be used for low-density housing, but Olson explained that land is not zoned agricultural so the landowners would have to come back and ask for rezoning. A member of the city’s Energy Task Force, Bruce Anderson, said there are strong ramifications for this decision. He cautioned that annexing 400 acres of prime agricultural land 3 miles from downtown, with the infrastructure more than a mile away when there is tremendous economic uncertainty with soaring oil prices and an impending food crisis requires careful deliberation.
Scott Schumacher, recalling the public meeting at the Armory seeking public ideas for Northfield’s future, said that we can come up with better ways to balance our tax base.
Angel Dobrow questioned the timing of the decision. She understands this may be an opportunity but that until the comprehensive plan is final it is premature to make such a decision. She expressed concern as to who is driving the decision.
Victor Summa wondered about the time frame for responding to the request. Olson said the commission has 60 days, with the option to extend to another 60. Summa said the commission should use the 120 days to complete the comprehensive plan and hammer out the land use regulations.
David Hvistendahl said that rarely has anyone come to the planning commission to object to typical suburban residential growth, which he says is what is turning us into a faceless community. He believes we need to act now, and that if we don’t annex we can’t control development. High taxes are killing the downtown. He said Waterford cannot prevent annexation (of the land north of the city) that state law provides that the city can annex without the township’s permission. “Before you conclude we have to work hand to hand with townships, look at the case law.” State law favors annexation, according to Hvistendahl.
David Ludescher, former Chamber of Commerce President, stressed that there is an opportunity here. The city needs to do something to correct the tax burden created by imbalance of tax base. The landowners can do anything they want to the land. We want it for our industrial base. “If they walk away and don’t come back, what will we do? “Set aside your personal ideas and do what is best for the city.”
Suzie Nakasian, a member of the city’s Environmental Quality Commission echoed Margit Johnson’s statement about loss of control. She would like to see control put into the agreement. If that isn’t there, the comprehensive plan is undermined.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Feldbrugge said the Chamber supports the request and the planning for 20 years and believes that 320 acres a minimum for that period. The northwest area has always been envisioned for a business park.
Kiffi Summa said there is no question there is a need for industrial development, but no one has explained why this decision must be made now before the comprehensive plan and land use regulations are in place. She cited the July 9, 2007, City Council meeting in which Noah Cashman requiring that the landowners agree to the future comprehensive plan and land use regulations. She asked whether the city has such a letter from the landowners.
Bridgewater Township resident Leif Knecht, who lived in Northfield for 40 years, said that without businesses, property taxes are too high. He warned that unless the land is ready and waiting, businesses will go elsewhere. This still makes it possible for us to provide the amenities we all enjoy.
Greg Langer, a resident of Greenvale Township, supports the Chamber’s mission and realizes Northfield must expand business. However, there are some residents in the township who want to protect the land as open space, and should talk with the Township board.
Jerri Hurlbutt was concerned about the effect on natural resources, traffic patterns and the expansion of highway 10 of this proposal. It isn’t clear how much of a financial burden this will be for the city.
Edric Lysne, who grew up in Northfield and now lives in Minneapolis, is concerned about protecting open space. He believes that a community that protects natural apace is likely better off than one that permits uncontrolled development. “Open landscape defines a down just as does a historic downtown.” He would like the city to consider making some of the land a protected area. Lysne showed a map depicting fragile areas and a plan for preserving it. He worked as an intern in the city’s planning department. He noted how open space had declined since then. “If we drastically change the natural landscape, we do a disservice to our children and ourselves.”
Ruth Lysne, one of the landowners, noted that the people who have brought the petitions are close to or beyond retirement age. If the city doesn’t act now, it will have to start all over again with the heirs who may not be as interested in Northfield as we are. The group made the proposal because they care about the land and believe that rather than each landowner selling separately, the group should work together collaboratively.
The final speaker was a St. Olaf senior who has been following the comprehensive plan process urged that the commission take into account the Land Use Principles the council adopted in 2007.
Following the hearing, the commission approved an amendment to the by-laws Commissioner Alice Thomas offered providing that “immediately after a vote has been taken at a meeting on a recommendation to the City` Council, the Commission will compose a short, but clear written rationale for the decision . . . (which) will be read by staff when presenting their recommendation to the City Council.”