Language requiring ‘hard-surface’ parking lots is removed

    It appears the proposed “gateway overlay district” in Crookston, which was first discussed around 18 months ago, is finally in a form that will please the Crookston City Council enough to approve it.

    On Tuesday, the City Planning Commission, which had undertaken the bulk of the work on the district for more than a year, agreed to amend the ordinance they’d approved earlier this year by removing language relating to “hard surface parking lots.” Once legal counsel signs off on the modified ordinance, it will go back before the council, which, earlier this month, sent the gateway overlay district back to the commission for further discussion.

    Several major corridors in and out of Crookston as well as in the industrial park are within the boundaries of the gateway overlay district. Over time, as long as several decades, the district is designed to improve the appearance of commercial properties along those arteries – residential properties are exempt. But the reason it typically takes so long for such a district to have a noticeable effect is because all properties at its launch are grandfathered in. If a new business is built it must comply with the district’s parameters, but the only way an existing commercial property has to comply is if the nature of the business changes significantly. If a business is sold but the nature of the business does not significantly change, the property would still be grandfathered in.

    Previously, City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds cited an example from Duluth, where an industrial business that dealt with metal transformed into a business that dealt with wood. After a legal challenge to that city’s gateway overlay district, he explained, it was determined that the change in the nature of the business was significant enough to trigger its compliance with the district.

    That example spooked some council members, with Tom Vedbraaten and Jake Fee being the most vocal over the past couple of months in expressing their concerns about the gateway overlay district being proposed in Crookston. But the district continued to advance toward passage anyway. It wasn’t until word was publicly disseminated that several businesses, large and small, in and near Crookston’s industrial park that currently have gravel parking lots might have to pave them if their nature changed significantly in the future that red flags were raised higher by more council members.

    When the parking lot issue was detailed in public, Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said that’s when his phone started ringing.

    “That’s the bad part; there’s no feedback until it hits the paper,” he said. “Then it hits the paper and people start calling.”

    If Adam and Tim Wagner’s Vertical Malt, currently housed at Valley Technology Park, eventually builds a new facility on six acres near Ingersoll Avenue and Highway 75 South, Fee said, requiring a paved parking lot will add several hundred thousand dollars to their bottom line.

    “Don’t think something like that won’t be considered as far as deciding where you build,” Fee said, adding that Crookston is already known for being “notoriously anti-business.”

    Then there’s Epitome Energy, which is looking to build a soybean crush and biodiesel facility on around 100 acres in the same vicinity. While that will be located further off the highway in order to be closer to railroad infrastructure, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said smaller businesses that potentially branch off from the main facility, including those tied to the affiliated Soy Innovation Campus, will be located closer to Highway 75 and have smaller start-up budgets.

    “Lots of new businesses start with gravel (parking lots) and move up to concrete,” Hoiseth said. “…I understand the need to clean things up (via the gateway overlay district), but I think you’re setting up a little bit of a liability for businesses. …I’m just concerned about laying additional mandates on (smaller businesses that would branch off from Epitome Energy).”

    Gateway overlay districts are growing in popularity, and some commission members made a point that if Crookston is ever to receive serious consideration for any grant money that might help Crookston businesses comply with the district’s parameters, potential funders have made it clear that a gateway overlay district needs to be approved and on the books here first. “We need to have something in place to get grant people to even look at us,” Bryan Schipper said.

    Schipper, along with some commissioners who were appointed earlier this year and were later arrivals to the gateway overlay district discussion, also defended the commission’s work on the district over the past one year-plus. “We had numerous meetings on this. …The commission did its job,” Schipper said.

    Even with the district in place, Reynolds stressed previously that future cases involving commercial properties having to comply with the district’s guidelines could potentially have the requirements eased by the commission and council in the form of variances. The thinking going into the commission meeting Tuesday was that many of those variances could involve businesses asking to not have to pave their parking lots. There was a preference around the table to avoid passing an ordinance that’s supposedly supposed to improve the appearance of commercial properties, only to grant a bunch of variances in the future.

    “You should never pass codes that set it up where we’ll be approving variances,” Fee said. “You go to all these training sessions, and they say you do the code right in the first place and don’t pass any variances.”

    “I don’t want to have all these rules and then do variances,” Erickson added.

    The commission’s vote to amend the gateway overlay district was unanimous.