A property owner renewed his request Monday, March 22 for a lot split with variances for lot size and width at 600 Park Ave. N., but the Park Rapids Planning Commission turned him down.

Blake Johnson brought revised plans for the home he wants to build on the property, which stretches from U.S. Hwy. 71 east to the Fish Hook River and currently has a commercial building, most recently used as a dance studio, at its west end.

Johnson wanted to divide the property in two, preserving the commercial structure in the west and building a new house on the east side. However, dividing the lot would require a variance from the minimum lot size required for a single-family residence and the minimum lot width in a shoreland overlay district.

On Feb. 22, the planning commission tabled Johnson’s variance request because he did not yet own the property and therefore, in commissioners’ view, he did not yet face the “practical difficulty” required for such a variance. They also requested an extension of the 60-day deadline to either approve or deny the request.

Concerns were also raised Feb. 22 about the steepness of the dance studio’s driveway approach to Hwy. 71, especially with curbside parking limiting visibility; the handling of rain runoff; the percentage of the property that would be covered by impervious surfaces; sight lines from a neighboring homeowner’s windows; shoreline setbacks and a vegetative buffer to protect the shoreline from erosion.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Case for approval

During Monday’s public hearing about the request, Johnson introduced engineer Zach Thoma with Karvakko. Thoma presented details of his plan to mitigate runoff issues, including a stormwater infiltration area next to the house’s driveway.

Thoma also noted that a revision in the lot split request would require a smaller variance from the minimum lot size of 20,000 square feet for a single-family residence, reduced from a variance of 50 percent to 46 percent. The requested division, as recalculated, would divide the current 24,394-square-foot property to create a residential lot of 11,108 square feet.

Thoma’s plan, included in the commission’s agenda packet, also includes other details in response to the concerns raised on Feb. 22, such as installing “no parking” signs at the curb.

Former city planner Andrew Mack’s staff report, which recommended approval of the variance request with a number of conditions, also noted that utility service would be extended from the commercial side to the new residential lot.

Johnson told the commission that by tearing up the dance studio’s parking lot and replacing it with a driveway, the amount of impervious surface on the lot would be reduced.

In a letter that City Administrator Angel Weasner read into the record, neighboring property owners Jack and Kay Smythe advised against granting the variance. Julie Gray, the daughter of neighboring homeowner Joanne Schmider, also spoke up against the proposal.

Their objections focused on the size and width of the parcel, where the proposed home would crowd the property lines and where rain runoff from the roof might enter neighbors’ property and contribute to shoreline erosion.

Practical difficulty

In a comment after the public hearing was closed, commission member Bruce Johnson pointed out that by splitting the current, conforming lot into two lots of non-conforming size and width, landowner Blake Johnson would be creating the zoning issue that his variance request seeks to address.

Bruce Johnson said he felt this flies in the face of the city zoning ordinance’s criteria for granting variances – specifically where it says, “The plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the landowner.”

“I think that it looks like a nice project,” he said. “The problem that I have is that I don’t want to set ourselves up for a situation where the city has now shown that they’re willing to give a variance in a situation like this, and then the next person that comes along could potentially have litigation against the city for not approving something under similar circumstances.”

City council representative Liz Stone added that Blake Johnson’s request represented a bigger variance than the commission has dealt with before. Bruce Johnson agreed, calling the requested variance “sweeping and broad.”

In their findings of fact, the commissioners answered “no” to four of the five questions about whether the zoning ordinance presents “practical difficulties” to the landowner’s goals. For a variance to be granted, all five questions require positive answers.

Starting with Bruce Johnson’s point about the lot split causing the issue, the commissioners found that Blake Johnson’s plight would be due to circumstances he created; that granting the variance would conflict with the city’s zoning ordinance and the comprehensive plan; and that the result would alter the essential character of the surrounding area.

Stone moved to deny the variance request based on these findings of fact, and the motion passed 5-0.

Don’t give up

Commission chair Robb Swanson said he thought Blake Johnson’s plan for the property was honorable, but the variance issue didn’t work.

Swanson and other commission members encouraged Johnson to continue working with city staff to find a way to achieve his vision.

Stone apologized to Johnson because the commission took so long to make a decision they could have made on Feb. 22. She admitted their “vision was clouded” by other issues.

“We should have, as a planning commission, I feel, developed the conditions, or discussed that, and not had them presented to us,” she said, apparently referring to Mack’s staff recommendation.

A subdued Blake Johnson commented that he never intended any malice toward the neighboring homeowners and that he respects their concerns and the commission’s judgment.

“The overall vision was to improve that road, meeting all the requirements … for runoff, setbacks and the families’ views,” he said, adding that he’s learned a lot about the planning process from the experience.