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Fish Hook River lot split would require variances

Blake Johnson's request for lot size and lot width variances for a lot split on Park Avenue was continued by the Park Rapids Planning Commission on Monday, pending completion of Johnson's purchase of the property.

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Blake Johnson explains his reasons for requesting lot size and lot width variances for a property on the Fish Hook River at Monday's meeting of the Park Rapids Planning Commission. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

The Park Rapids Planning Commission requested a 60-day extension on Feb. 22 of the deadline to make a decision about a variance request by Blake Johnson to allow a lot split at 600 Park Ave. N.

The request, regarding an already non-conforming parcel on the west shore of the Fish Hook River, is to allow a lot split creating two parcels with a lot size variance of 9,981 square feet less than the 20,000-square foot minimum, and a lot width variance of 30 feet from the 80-foot minimum.

City council representative Liz Stone echoed a written comment by commission chair Robb Swanson, who was absent. They questioned whether the request met the legal requirement for a “practical difficulty” since Johnson did not currently own the parcel.

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The planning commission agreed to reconsider Blake Johnson's variance request regarding a lot split at 600 Park Ave. N. after he closes on the purchase of the property. (Hubbard County GIS map)

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During a public hearing about the request, Johnson explained that he has signed a purchase agreement with the current property owner, Dean Britton, and that he intended to close on the purchase this week regardless.

City Planner Andrew Mack advised the commissioners that Britton also signed the variance request, and that the commission is legally able to act on the request – either to approve, modify or deny it.

Nevertheless, Stone said she felt the planning commission shouldn’t be put in the position of recommending approval of a variance when the primary applicant hasn’t closed on the property.

Commissioner Scott Hocking agreed, adding that before the sale closed, there would be no guarantee that the buyer would follow through on his plans.

Vice-chair Nancy Newman read into the record several written comments about the variance request, including letters from concerned neighbors John and Katherine Smythe, county Environmental Services Director Eric Buitenwerf and DNR Area Hydrologist Darrin Hoverson.

Buitenwerf noted that the property’s current driveway approach to U.S. Hwy. 71 is very steep and could be unsafe in snowy or icy conditions, a view that Hocking seconded.

Buitenwerf also wrote that subdividing the lot would leave insufficient parking for the dance studio.

Hoverson suggested several conditions for granting the request, such as having a permanent vegetation buffer along the shoreline; requiring a grading, drainage and stormwater plan designed to manage all water to pre-development conditions and direct runoff away from the river; and prohibit future variances to exceed the 25 percent impervious surface maximum in the shoreland district.

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The Smythes urged against granting the variance, but their reasons were addressed in staff recommendations, except for one concern that Mack said he must ask the Smythes to explain further.

Mack and Johnson both noted that these conditions were included in the staff report recommending approval of the variance. Johnson also discussed his plans to build a two-level house with a garage in the lower level, set back 75 feet from the shoreline.

Another concerned neighbor, Joanne Schmider, questioned whether Johnson’s proposed two-level house would interfere with the river view from her south-facing living room window. Mack used a GIS map to show Schmider that the 75-foot setback would put the house out of the sight-line from her house, and Schmider appeared satisfied.

Asked about the required setbacks for new construction in the shoreland district, Mack said city code requires a minimum 10-foot side yard setback, 50 feet from the shoreline and 30 feet from the street.

Johnson explained how he plans to address issues such as the steep driveway, drainage and landscape issues.

To a question by Hocking, Johnson confirmed that he plans to own both parcels, once subdivided, and is considering giving the commercial building on the street-side parcel to his son.

Stone said she liked what Johnson has planned for the property, and urged him to come back with his request after closing the purchase.

Ultimately, Stone moved to table the request, to continue discussion of it at the commission’s next meeting after the sale closes, and to direct staff to post notice of a public hearing at that time, with a 60-day extension of the city’s deadline to make a decision about the request. The motion passed 3-0, absent Swanson and Commissioner Bruce Johnson.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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