The Park Rapids Planning Commission voted on Nov. 26 in favor of a conditional use permit (CUP) requested by Ferrellgas, Inc.

The Liberty, Mo.-based company wants to open a retail propane sales and distribution facility at 1003 Park Ave. S., currently owned by the Sundsrud Family Limited Partnership. The 1.38-acre site is zoned B-1 highway business and has been vacant for several years.

The request was tabled at the commission's Oct. 22 meeting, following a public hearing during which Jason Jalbert with Park Rapids Ford voiced opposition to the permit. A 60-day extension was requested to consider the impact of the proposed use on the U.S. Hwy. 71 highway business corridor.

Commissioners were reminded on Nov. 26 that if no decision is made before the extension ends, the CUP will be automatically granted.

Final authority to grant or deny the CUP rests in the city council at its last meeting of the year, scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at city hall.

Ferrellgas relocating

Representatives of Ferrellgas were unable to attend the Nov. 26 meeting due to severe winter weather in the Kansas City area. However, the commission's agenda packet included an Aug. 30 letter from Jason Cullen, director of real estate and environmental with Ferrellgas.

Cullen explained that the company is closing its Wadena location and wants to relocate to the Park Rapids area. Their site would include an office building for customer service and scheduling/routing of propane deliveries, and bulk propane storage tank(s) used to fill two or three "bobtail" delivery trucks. It would eventually employ three to five people.

Asked on Oct. 22 whether a location in an industrial district would be better, Ferrellgas representative Dylane Klatt said they want the visibility of a retail location. He said they looked into buying the Gas Service Co. location across the street, but the owner was not interested in selling it to them.

During the Nov. 26 meeting, Commission Chair Richard Bradow emphasized that the question facing the commission related only to the proposed use requested of the Sundsrud site; other locations were not relevant to the application.

Traffic impact

Also in the packet was a letter from Jonathan Olson, project engineer with Apex Engineering Group, responding to Jalbert's request for an opinion about the location's impact on Highway 71 traffic.

Olson noted that Ferrellgas expects approximately five retail customers per day, two to three bulk delivery trucks entering and leaving once or twice per day, and onsite bulk storage tank(s) being refilled once every three or four weeks.

He concluded that "the facility will generate low volumes of traffic" and "is unlikely to result in any adverse traffic impacts."

Paragraph 20

Former City Planner Ryan Mathisrud told the commission on Oct. 22 that it was up to them to decide whether Paragraph 20 under conditional uses in a B-1 district applies to the Ferrellgas proposal.

The paragraph describes "other uses determined by the planning agency to be of the same general character as the permitted and conditional uses above and found not to be detrimental to existing uses and the general public health, safety and welfare."

"I'm not on board with Paragraph 20 covering that business," said Commissioner Bruce Johnson.

Bradow told the commissioners they would need a legally actionable reason to deny the use.

"I see no reason in No. 20 that would tell me that they can't be there," he said. "They bill themselves as a retail operation. B-1 is for retail."

Mathisrud memo

At the Oct. 22 meeting, Commissioner Thomas Petschl questioned whether the commission can deny Ferrellgas' proposed use when a similar company exists down the street in the same district.

In a memo included in the Nov. 26 agenda packet, Mathisrud clarified that the gas company across the street has been at that location since 1979 according to city records, while the current zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan date to 2007 and 2008.

Therefore, Mathisrud wrote, "anything already built carries a grandfathered status, so the use across the street is irrelevant to the decision on this one. The current ordinance applies to this request, and the commission can determine" whether or not it wants to see additional gas companies in the B-1 district.

Mathisrud said he thought the Ferrellgas request could fit the comprehensive plan "if heightened design standards are implemented," and the commission could determine that a propane sales and distribution lot "is a conditional use in the B-1 district and approve it with any conditions that it determines are necessary to make it fit."

An improved landscaping plan submitted by Ferrellgas on Nov. 21 was in the Nov. 26 packet.

Safety concerns

Bradow said he studied the safety record of bulk propane storage and distribution sites, and he found that the risk factors for explosions and fires were human error and the use of the bulk tank to fill 100-pound cylinders or smaller. Refilling bulk delivery trucks is less risky, he said.

"I'm comfortable with the safety of their product," said Bradow.

He said Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman reported no special safety concerns about Ferrellgas' proposed use, but that the fire department does not currently have a specific propane emergency action plan.

In addition to seven conditions Mathisrud had recommended for the CUP, Bradow proposed three conditions relating to his safety concerns:

• The propane filling station will be used solely to fill bulk delivery trucks; no 100-pound or smaller cylinders will be filled on the premises.

• No more than 10 100-pound cylinders will be stored on the premises at any one time; 20-pound cylinders must be stored in cages.

• A propane emergency response plan will be developed with the fire department.

Rewriting 34 South

Commissioners differed about whether the proposed propane lot belongs in a B1 district.

"Right now, that part of town is rewriting itself," Johnson said. "We have a chance to rewrite it, have a clean slate, and have the south end of town look nice, and have commercial development there - hopefully, retail development - so that the town's not strung out on Highway 34."

Johnson added, "You can call it what you want, but to me, a bulk gas plant is industrial. I don't think it fits there. We have a comprehensive zoning plan. That use is no longer listed in a B-1 district."

Commissioner Nancy Newman said, "I've thought from the beginning that it was an inappropriate place, with the houses right there in the back. I would like to see other businesses."

Newman said that with nearby medical facilities and upcoming infrastructure improvements, she would like the south end of town present a better appearance.

"I think it's wonderful that they (Ferrellgas) want to come to town," she said, "but I do not feel that this is an appropriate location."

"I would totally like to see the business in place," Petschl said. "You have a lot that's been sitting for 20 years."

Petschl pooh-poohed the idea that retail business will grow along Highway 71 as long as Park Rapids has a seasonal economy and online business is "killing retail."

"People don't want to put a business up here about half a year and shut down," he said. "Until this economy gets to a whole year, you're not going to put any retail on that site. You're going to have more vacant lots; it'll look like a blight. The worst thing in the world, worse than a gas plant going in, is driving into a town with vacant lots and closed buildings."

Petschl said he has no problem with Ferrellgas starting to pay the long uncollected special assessments on the property.

"I think we need to take this for now," he said. "All the safety precautions will be there. I see nothing negative about it."

Findings of fact

In its findings of fact about the CUP request, all four commissioners found that Ferrellgas' proposed use is a conditional use in the B-1 district - though Johnson voiced reluctance.

Regarding the six-question permit evaluation, the commission's answers were unanimously in favor of the proposed use, with one exception. Johnson disagreed with the majority about whether the use is consistent with the intent of the city's comprehensive plan.

Ending an hour-long discussion, the planning commission voted 3-1 to recommend city council approval of the CUP with Bradow's added conditions. Johnson was opposed.