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Helga Township considers zoning for Highway 71 stretch

The Highway 71 corridor south of Bemidji is being widened and repaved due to increasing traffic volume. This week Helga Township took preliminary steps to try to regulate development along the corridor that would prescribe appropriate development uses on the strip. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The Helga Township Planning Commission took a fledgling step Wednesday to regulate development along the steadily growing U.S. Highway 71 corridor leading to and from Bemidji.

It voted 3-1 to send a zoning plan to the township board that would create two separate commercial districts along the highway. Helga's town supervisors will take up the matter Tuesday night.

The controversial proposal creates a commercial district called C-1 from North Plantagenet Road to South Plantagenet Road, using a quarter mile wide strip down each side of the highway. The ordinance creates 114 allowed uses of the property, setback distances and minimum lot size of 2.5 acres, all subject to issuance of a conditional use permit.

"The area so designated will allow certain types of heavy commercial uses and development to occur in an orderly manner so as to ensure a pleasant and suitable environment," the ordinance reads.

The second commercial district would run down the highway from South Plantagenet Road to the southern township line at 460th Street.

Called C-2, it would establish another commercial district with "uses that are less intense and have fewer potential negative impacts on surrounding properties than certain commercial uses that are more appropriately located in Commercial District C-1," the ordinance states.

Minimum lot size there is 5 acres.

Landowners along the highway are vocally opposed to the different lot requirements and uses for the two districts, claiming the ordinance discriminates against landowners in the northern zone and may make it harder to sell or buy land in that area.

Around 70 allowed uses are listed for this district. Although some overlap the C-1 district, many uses don't. And although the ordinance provides for "substantially similar" businesses to be built in either district in addition to the allowed uses, opponents complain this could result in arbitrary and subjective decision-making by township officials.

"It's a commercial corridor you want to split up," protested Norm Ricard. "What is the reasoning behind the acreage" differences, he wondered.

"It's not fair to curtail how you dictate the size of the lot," Ricard and other residents pointed out, saying the different acreage requirements was a form of favoritism and micromanagement of private owners' land.

Planning commission and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said the reason was that the north corridor will be more heavily traveled and DOT wants to control the amount of driveways that will spill onto the highway for safety reasons.

"The more driveways we have, the more driver conflicts we'll have," said DOT planner Joe McKinnon. He said plans call for the DOT to regulate the number of driveway locations to promote traffic efficiency along the highway.

The driveways would be at specific planned locations and could be shared by one or more business.

But planning board chair Steve Pemble said it also would maximize the township's tax base. More lots at a smaller size would promote many small businesses and contribute more tax revenues, he suggested.

The zoning ordinance only prescribes lot minimums, not actual size, he said.

"I haven't heard anybody in three meetings that's for this," objected planning commission member Brian Hughes, voting against the proposal.

He said the land uses are too strictly prescribed in the ordinance and the two different lot sizes create disparities that should not exist between the districts.

Angry property owners walked out of the meeting as the board took up the vote. Some, like Dirk Fisher, grumbled that the township was trying to restrict an owner's use of his or her land unnecessarily.

Township vice chair Jim Autrey said not all residents oppose the ordinance, which took a long hard journey to the board and many revisions throughout the past year.

"As the corridor grows it forces us to take action," he said. "We need to manage it, take care of it."

Autrey said he doesn't know how he or the other town supervisors will vote Tuesday.

Township attorney Troy Gilchrist said even if the ordinance is approved, land use restrictions are constantly refined and revised.

"You're never done with zoning," he said.

Thursday and Friday Fisher, a former planning commission member, called the Enterprise numerous times to stress the opposition's stance.

"For them to tell us we can't build a Menard's in the south end or a Post Office in the north end is wrong," he said.

Strictly prescribed uses for both zones will constrict development, not encourage it, he added.

Pemble said the township has learned through experience and litigation to proceed cautiously.

"If something gets shoved through without restrictions it ends up costing the township," he said. "Court fees, attorneys, the meter runs really fast."

But attorneys are what the opposition is threatening to bring in if the ordinance passes the township board.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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