Early form of potential gateway overlay district language for Crookston will be ‘bare bones’ in nature

    As local officials continue to discuss the potential positive impact of establishing “gateway overlay districts” along the City right-of-way in many of the primary entrances to Crookston, it’s becoming clear to decision-makers on the City Planning Commission and Crookston City Council that such districts really can’t force a lot of change over the short term, unless a property owner feels peer pressure to keep up when a neighboring property owner makes improvements to their properties.

    “The ordinance cannot eliminate an existing use; there’s no sunset clause or anything like that we could add,” Building Official/Zoning Administrator Matt Johnson explained during a recent Planning Commission discussion at which he updated newly appointed members on what the gateway overlay district research is all about.

    “It won’t impact current uses,” City Administrator Shannon Stassen added. “It’s just improving places that the most traffic is likely to be, the places more people are more likely to see.”

    Johnson has been leading the look into establishing gateway overlay district regulations on top of the City’s existing zoning regulations since City officials, council members and Mayor Wayne Melbye took a bus tour around town last year and potential options for improving the look of the community at many of its main, highest-traffic entrances were brought up.

    Since that initial talk, potential gateway overlay districts have been identified on both the east and west U.S. Highway 2 entrances, Highway 75 and the Highway 75 bypass, Fisher Avenue, and, a late addition, Fairfax Avenue.

    Lots of cities are pursuing similar districts, Johnson said, or already have them in place. He provided an example gateway overlay district to commission members from Mankato, Minnesota, but everyone agreed that that city’s example is too widespread and comprehensive for Crookston. Johnson agreed, and said Crookston’s potential district could simply pick and choose what works best in other cities.

    Commission member Travis Oliver, when he asked if “specific eyesores” are being targeted by gateway overlay districts, was told by Stassen that City and Polk County officials over the years have “put some pressure” on certain property owners to improve the looks of their high-profile properties, but a gateway overlay district seeks a more comprehensive impact over a longer period of time.

    “This is more going forward, as properties maybe change hands, as things continue to change,” Stassen said. “We want to make sure these standards are held up going forward.”

    Commission member Shirley Iverson said the district should be viewed from a positive position of strength and not in a negative fashion that points out a community weakness.

    “It’s not an eyesore position, but a strength position,” she said. “Using fresh eyes, we say here’s what people see when they come through town; it’s not what we’re going to portray as a weakness, but what we want to portray as a strength.”

    For example, the visual appeal of the University of Minnesota Crookston campus coming into Crookston on Highway 2 from the west is the “gold standard,” Stassen noted.

    A gateway overlay district could include regulations involving certain setbacks, screened parking areas, defining ground coverage and consistent building styles and materials in the event of new construction, Johnson explained.

    “It can be as expansive or simple as we see fit for Crookston,” he said.

    As he often does, the mayor is playing a devil’s advocate role, specific to enforcing the regulations contained in a gateway overlay district. When it comes to City leaders considering adding tougher ordinance language to existing codes, Melbye is often one to say they’re probably not worth the paper they’re written on if sufficient enforcement and other forms of follow-up are lacking.

    “We’ve done this so many times, putting up something that can’t be enforced,” Melbye said. “Recommending is one thing, throwing something at people is something else. …What can we gain and what are we going to gain if we do this?”

    Stassen said it’s a two-part scenario. “There’s an opportunity for impact through peer pressure; you look at your neighbors who have done some things, so can you up your ante a little bit?” he explained. “Going forward, it’s new construction and changing uses, we’d have some teeth; they wouldn’t be able to get a permit to change or do something new without complying.”

    “So, short term, there’s nothing you can really do; you can encourage all you want, but this is about long-term,” Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee added.

    Commission member Brian Schipper wondered if there might be some resistance if a new property owner wants to build, for example, a $3 million facility along an entrance into Crookston, while neighboring property owners are still allowed to let their properties look shabby. “So I’m spending all of that money and I have to follow the rules, but the guy next door with the junk and dumpsters, he doesn’t have to do anything?” Schipper wondered. “I don’t want to stop advancement in Crookston, but if I’m putting up an expensive place and have shacks surrounding me, I might put my place somewhere else.”

    Stassen said everything has to keep thinking long term. If gateway overlay districts were established in Crookston 25 years ago, he said it’s a safe bet that many of the main entrances into the community would look significantly different than they do now. “Eventually, it takes care of some of the things that we’ve seen occur,” he said. “I would like to think that a new business would want to meet the standards that would put their business in the most positive light.”

    The mayor and commission members directed Johnson to start constructing potential gateway overlay district language on the “bare bones” level for Crookston, and then see how much interest there is in adding various layers as the debate continues toward a vote on a finished product.

    “We need to ask, what can we do, what can we really enforce, but try to have something that 10 or 15 years down the road looks pretty insightful,” Melbye said.

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said he thinks that’s a smart approach to take at this point. “Sometimes giving the carrot goes further than the stick; you build positive relationships and you’ll see results over time,” he said.

    Iverson said everyone needs to realize that Crookston is under the microscope every minute of every day. “Crookston is being judged and assessed every single day, so we need to keep that in mind,” she said. “We can’t be naive about that; people see our town differently than we do.”