Ordinance allows billboard, but nearby property owners object

    The weird thing is, At Large Crookston City Council Member Wayne Melbye theorizes, had a City Planning Commission meeting earlier this summer attracted a quorum – it did not, meaning no official actions could be taken – a request by Sky Digital Advertising to erect a digital billboard just off University Avenue on Crookston’s north end likely would have been recommended for council approval with little debate.

    But, with nearby property owners given more time to get more information on the company’s request for a conditional use permit, they are now voicing their concerns, some in particularly vociferous fashion. An attorney representing Crookston National Bank, for example, produced 108 pages of documentation making the case for the conditional use permit’s denial, Melbye noted at a Ways & Means Committee meeting this week.

    As things stand now, the committee took no action after a lengthy discussion this week. But they know that on Monday, Sept. 12, the Planning Commission is going to meet a half-hour before the council is scheduled to meet, and it’s highly likely that the commission is going to make a decision one way or another, and the council that night is going to have to act on the commission’s recommendation.

Need to act

    Meanwhile, a deadline is looming later this month and, City Administrator Shannon Stassen explained, if the City takes no action on the conditional use permit request, it would automatically be approved since the request in its current form meets the parameters of the city’s ordinance relating to billboards. When the University of Minnesota Crookston approached the City last year about potentially placing a billboard on University property on the north end of town, the City modified its ordinance relating to billboard-related signage to allow a limited number of billboards along a major corridor like University Avenue. UMC could potentially erect one, Stassen said, and in the future a billboard could potentially arise west of the Cobblestone Inn.

    “If this one is approved, too, that would be it,” he said. “(The ordinance) was written this way intentionally so there wouldn’t be 15 billboards.”

    Prior to UMC approaching the City, billboards were prohibited, Stassen added.

    “Billboards had been requested downtown and all over the place for years, so we established (the current ordinance) to place them in specific areas,” he said.

    Waiting in the wings is the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which would have the final say on the billboard. If the City denies the Sky Digital Advertising’s request for a conditional use permit to erect their digital billboard on the former AutoGlass Specialists property now owned by the Crookston Firefighters Association – which is putting an unmanned fire station in the building – it’s possible that MnDOT wouldn’t consider the request any further. On the flip side, if the conditional use permit is granted by the City, it’s likely MnDOT wouldn’t stand in the way of the billboard going up.

    But it’s getting complicated. A right-of-way line from the middle of U.S. Highway 2 was redrawn at some point and it seems no one can explain why. In addition, there’s a covenant on the books dating back to the construction of Wal-Mart that could come into play.

    If there are issues with the right-of-way and required setbacks from the ROW and adjacent properties, Stassen said MnDOT would take a firm stance. “If it’s not right and it gets constructed, they’ll tear it down,” he said. “MnDOT will not allow this to go up out of compliance.”

    On the other hand, Stassen added, if all the requirements are met by Sky Digital Advertising and their request is within the parameters of City ordinance, if the City denies the request for the conditional use permit, “I would expect the billboard company would seek some sort of legal action,” he explained. “We’re bound by our ordinance, and it’s clearly defined in our ordinance that on major corridors billboards are allowed.”

Neighbors object

    But what if neighboring property owners – those within 350 feet of the permit request receive a required notice of the request – object? Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens, who sits on the Planning Commission, said “pretty much every neighbor around there does not want that billboard.” That goes for some properties on the west side of University Avenue as well.

    All of which, some council members believe, has placed the City in a pickle.

    “Are we supposed to base our decision on disgruntled neighbors or on the rules of compliance?” Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson wondered.

    “That’s the tough part,” Mayor Gary Willhite responded. “We sent out notices seeing what people think, and they don’t like it.”

    “(Sky Digital Advertising) might have the right to do this, but if you have every neighbor on the block ticked off, do we go by intent or what the people don’t want?” Melbye added.

    Melbye went on to say that he thinks the digital billboards “look terrific” and that they have positive components beyond paid-for advertising, such as Amber Alerts and weather emergency notifications. “I’m kind of on both sides of the fence; they’re a great tool and maybe we need to get into the 21st Century,” he said. “But at that particular spot, is it a good fit?”

    The fact the Crookston Firefighters Association owns the land on which the billboard would be erected only complicates matters further, Willhite suspects. It’s an organization that works with the City, the two generally like to help each other out, and the CFA’s north-end fire station would benefit the City. The CFA would obviously benefit from the $450 or so Sky Digital would pay it each month to use its land for the billboard, Willhite said.

    “Would we approve this for Joe Blow business guy is what you’re wondering,” Melbye said. “That’s a good question.”

City needs more time?

    Jorgens said he wants to see in writing the apparent rule indicating the City must act on the conditional use permit request by Sept. 29 or it will be automatically approved.

    “If we slow down the process because we don’t have enough information or the right information to make a decision, almost always we would have the ability to extend that timeframe,” he said. “What do we do? Make a bad decision, or extend the clock?”

    Stassen said the City had already utilized one extension on the matter, and council members Dale Stainbrook and Bob Quanrud mentioned that if the City ordinance allows the billboard, the City’s options might be limited.

    “But it’s our ordinance, so then we should be able to take our time on this,” Jorgens responded. “If there’s a provision saying we have a deadline, I want to see it.”
    
If only…

    Melbye thought back to the summer Planning Commission meeting that failed to attract a quorum. Sky Digital’s Brent Blake presented the case for the conditional use permit, and no one voiced any opposition, and no concerned property owners nearby were in attendance.

    “It probably would have gone through and it would have been done,” Melbye said. “But people always like to yell later. There was no quorum, and then all of a sudden it was ‘Hey, that’s not a little parking sign, that’s a billboard.’”