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Helga Township passes commercial zoning ordinance to regulate land use along new Highway 71 corridor

The Helga Township board voted Tuesday to approve a new Land Use Ordinance, ending a two-year moratorium on commercial development along the busy U.S. Highway 71 corridor south of Bemidji.

The vote was unanimous after supervisor Mike Sherwood proposed amending the most contentious part of the zoning ordinance that splits the corridor into two separate commercial districts with different lot requirements.

The township's Planning Commission initially wanted different minimum lot size areas in each district to maximize potential revenue to the township by creating smaller commercial lots that would contribute to the tax base.

Those size restrictions angered residents, who claimed it was a form of discrimination that would hamper their ability to subdivide their property. By making all commercial lots a minimum of 5 acres, supervisors assuaged much of the opposition to the ordinance, they reasoned.

During the third of a series of public hearings last week, property owners were unanimous in their opposition to the different lot requirements.

Township chair Mike Smith detailed the lengthy route the commercial zoning ordinance took to get approved before the vote was taken.

The development moratorium was extended to January 2011 to allow the Minnesota Department of Transportation time to complete the first phase of a major makeover of the highway, widening it to four lanes south of Bemidji.

But that also caused some of the zoning issues. MNDOT engineers expressed concerns about the number of driveways that could potentially use the highway as ingress or egress points.

For safety of the traveling public, MN/DOT expressed a desire to control the number and placement of those driveways, an engineer said at last week's hearing.

In what supervisor Jim Autrey called "a gift," the department had given the township a quarter-mile-wide strip of land along each side of the highway to develop a commercial corridor through the township.

The north and south commercial districts will have different land uses, temporary uses and prohibited uses such as feedlots, hazardous waste facilities and chemical storage areas.

Between the two districts, almost 200 land uses are spelled out in the ordinance, and "substantially similar" uses will be considered. One district will be geared to more heavy industrial use; the other will simply be a commercial corridor.

All must apply for a conditional use permit through newly hired land use administrator Jim Baruth.

Smith said the process took an unusual turn when last spring, the township learned its elected planning commission was illegal. The township was informed the state Legislature must approve whether another public body can be elected.

So the old planning commission was disbanded and new rules were drawn to spell out eligibility for the new appointed commission.

And due to the new rules, some former planning commissioners were ineligible to serve because they had outstanding disputes (and conflicts of interest) over their own conditional use permits. That made some unhappy as a new commission was appointed and took office in the spring.

The four-member commission began work on the new zoning ordinance in May.

"This is a good workable document," Smith said. "There were strategic reasons for breaking down the two districts."

He added that he had heard from residents who favored the different lot dimensions.

"It's a tragedy that many supporters didn't speak up," he said.

Some of the access issues to the highway remain unresolved, but supervisors said the ordinance could easily be amended.

"I don't think this thing is ever solidified," Smith said, holding up the 27-page ordinance.

"It will undergo constant change."

Sarah Smith

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

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