Vedbraaten, Fee and Baird vote against.

    After research and planning and discussion that lasted for well over a year, the City of Crookston will have a “Gateway Overlay District” on the books, but its approval wasn’t exactly a slam dunk at this week’s Crookston City Council meeting, with three of the eight council members voting against its adoption.

    The positive impact of a gateway overlay district on a community is far from immediate. It’s expected to take several years and even decades for significant, noticeable changes to occur within its boundaries.

    In Crookston, the district will cover various major entrances into the community so that passers-by notice a consistent, pleasing view and nice aesthetics overall when they observe commercial properties in the district. (Residential properties are exempt.)

    Drastically reducing the immediate impact of a gateway overlay district is the fact that current commercial properties within its boundaries are grandfathered in. Those property owners are not required to make any changes now or at anytime in the future as long as the nature of their business does not change significantly. But the thinking is that if other new and/or significantly changed businesses locate nearby and abide, as required, by the parameters of the gateway overlay district, the owners of the grandfathered-in properties will feel compelled to make their properties conform as well and, in the process, look nicer.

    At one point in the planning process, the district language would have required a grandfathered-in property to abide by the district’s requirements if the property sold or otherwise changed hands. But, City Administrator Shannon Stassen stressed this week, the language was eventually softened so that if businesses are sold or change hands and the nature of the business doesn’t change significantly, their grandfathered-in status will continue.

    So what constitutes a “significant” change in the nature of a business? City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds used an example of a disputed gateway overlay district case in Duluth, where a business that dealt with metal and iron changed to a lumber-based business. There, it was eventually determined that such a change was significant enough to require the new lumber business to conform to the parameters of the gateway overlay district. But, Reynolds stressed, the city council here will have an opportunity to deal with each gateway overlay district case/scenario individually.
    At Large Council Members Tom Vedbraaten and Bobby Baird voted against the resolution, as did Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee.

    Vedbraaten has been the council’s most vocal opponent of the gateway overlay district, and this week he continued to strongly voice his objections. For one thing, he said, businesses and industries in Crookston’s industrial park, part of which is included in a district boundary, should be able to focus on providing a lot of jobs in the community and contributing to the local economy, and not how aesthetically pleasing their properties are. For another, Vedbraaten continued, the gateway overlay district doesn’t get to the heart of what Crookston residents most often complain about when it comes to the appearance of various properties.

    “This doesn’t help a thing with the things people are upset about,” he said. “Everything people are concerned about is grandfathered in.”

    All the gateway overlay district will do, Vedbraaten said, is hinder new businesses from coming to town. He questioned the wisdom of enacting such a policy when a multi-million dollar business, Epitome Energy, is looking to build a soybean crushing and biodiesel facility on Crookston’s southern edge. “You’re throwing roadblocks in front of them,” Vedbraaten said. “...Don’t go sticking this in front of them; I think it’s a big mistake.”

    Most of the complaints brought to his attention have to do with City-owned property, such as the “Welcome to Crookston” signs on the main entrances to town that he said have been full of weeds and not looking their best.

    While stressing that he “likes a lot of the things” in the gateway overlay district, Fee expressed his concern over businesses being “devalued” by potentially several hundreds of thousands of dollars if they’re going to change hands and also change their nature significantly enough to have to comply with the district. For example, Fee noted, the district requires paved parking lots. There are big parking lots in the industrial park that are currently gravel, he said, and paving them could potentially cost well into the six figures.

    Mayor Guy Martin, as he said in a recent discussion on the district, reiterated this week that if a gateway overlay district had been enacted when he served on the city council decades ago, some of its positive impacts would be observable today.