TOWER— Two proposals for new RV parks here, both of which would bring new seasonal residents and tax base to the community, have been stuck in neutral for years as a result of a city planning and …
TOWER— Two proposals for new RV parks here, both of which would bring new seasonal residents and tax base to the community, have been stuck in neutral for years as a result of a city planning and zoning process that appears designed to block, rather than encourage, new development.
The process, which is overseen by Zoning Administrator Linda Keith and Planning and Zoning Chairman Steve Altenburg, could soon land the city in court.
Dave Rose, who has been working for four years to advance a small RV park along the East Two River, just downstream from the city’s harbor, said he’s considering filing suit if the city doesn’t take action to address his request for a conditional use permit for his RV facility.
“I’m willing to see if we can at least get something moving in the next month,” said Rose.
“But I’ve lost income and I’ve probably already lost another season. Financially, it’s been a burden because I have an investment here and I’m making payments on it but I can’t move forward.”
Rose isn’t alone. Gary and Charity Ross have struggled for nearly six years to obtain a conditional use permit from the city to develop their own RV park on a large and private parcel overlooking Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay but have since put the property up for sale after years of frustration dealing with city hall.
Gary, who works at a Virginia-area mine, had moved his family to Tower in 2012 after buying a 58-acre plot of mostly open ground overlooking Pike Bay. Gary had hoped to retire from the mines in 2020 and the couple planned to develop an RV park in the meantime which would provide them with a steady source of income after Gary left his current job.
But that dream has turned into a costly nightmare for the Rosses, who continue to make $1,500-a-month-payments on a piece of eminently-developable property that, unfortunately for them, rests within the jurisdiction of Tower’s planning and zoning authority.
“We’re so frustrated,” said Ross. “We like it here, but we can’t keep dumping money into it. We bought it for a business, but it’s to the point where we put it up for sale because we’re running out of time.”
Conditional use process turned upside down
At the heart of the problem for both Rose and the Rosses is a conditional use permitting process in Tower that Rose insists is unlike any other zoning process used anywhere else in Minnesota. Elsewhere in Minnesota, an application for a conditional use permit is relatively straightforward and the approval process, by law, can’t take longer than 60 days.
Most conditional use applications are a few pages long and usually require the applicant to provide their contact information, a sketch of the proposal including setbacks, a bit of rationale, and an oath that they own the property.
Applicants fill it out, pay their application fee, and the request typically ends up before a local planning and zoning board within a few weeks.
That, in a nutshell, is how it works in St. Louis County as well, according to Mary Anderson, the county’s longtime land use manager, who retired last Friday. “Once an application comes in, we immediately send a copy to the local township if it’s organized, and we also send a copy for review if it requires septic approval. We want to give them the same notice that we have,” Anderson said.
Those additional notices, said Anderson, help keep the project moving forward as efficiently as possible, but none of the other approvals that a project might entail are necessary at the point that a conditional use permit comes to the county planning commission for approval.
The information required for the application is typically enough for the county to determine that the project meets their zoning standards and can be filled out by just about any prospective developer. “Sometimes people go through a surveyor for their site sketch, but people can draw sketches on their own if they want,” said Anderson.
There’s a reason that the permit application process isn’t too rigorous. “We’re basically just approving the use,” she said. “We don’t want people investing their life’s fortune in something that won’t get approved. We try not to put too much burden on the applicant. We want to promote development.”
In Tower, by contrast, fortunes for both Rose and the Rosses are slipping away, as both Keith and Altenburg have refused to even accept conditional use permit applications for either of their projects.
The city of Tower’s conditional use application is just two pages long and requires even less information than St. Louis County’s, but Keith maintains she can’t accept the application for an RV park or any other kind of planned unit development until the developers have finalized a long list of tasks, including an environmental assessment worksheet, and have all of their other state, federal, and local agency approvals in hand.
In a recent email to Rose, Keith ticked off a list of 17 things that Rose would need to provide before she would accept an application, including a dock plan with DNR approvals attached, full surveying including staking of all roads, buildings and RV sites, a dust control plan, MPCA sewer connection permit approval, full detailed design drawings and building plans, an archeological assessment, and “all regulatory permit applications and written documentation of application approval.” And the coup de grace, written by Keith in all caps, was “ANY OTHER DOCUMENTS THAT WILL BE DETERMINED TO BE NECESSARY.”
Rose says he is most frustrated by Keith’s constant shifting of the goal posts. Indeed, Keith insisted to Rose that her seemingly exhaustive list of hoops was unlikely to be the last requirement. She had initially given Rose a list of six things he needed to accomplish before she’d take a conditional use application to the planning and zoning board, but that list has morphed into something much longer. And Keith has made it clear that the list is likely to grow.
Rose vented his frustration at the planning and zoning board last Thursday. “This is my dispute,” he said. “I did those six things and then I got 12 more things and then I got 18. Will it be 36 next time?”
Both Rose and the Rosses note that each item on Keith’s list costs more money, and she’s requiring them to spend tens of thousands of dollars without any guarantee that the city will ultimately approve a conditional use permit.
While the Rosses have so far resisted Keith’s demand for an EAW, Rose actually completed his EAW more than a year ago, a process that took months. Keith initially rejected Rose’s own effort to fill out the worksheet, insisting that he hire an engineer at a cost of several thousand dollars. Rose eventually agreed, but Keith then demanded that Rose pay the city’s engineer to review it, which cost him an additional $4,000.
He’s had to pay for wetland delineations, surveying, and other work at the site, not to mention his personal time, expenses, and lost potential income from his would-be business. And at last week’s planning commission meeting, Altenburg told him he’d have to pay for another wetland delineation because he recently did a land swap with an adjacent property owner, which may have altered the wetland percentages.
Applicants to St. Louis County aren’t required to do any of those things until after they have conditional use approval from the planning commission. According to Anderson, the prospective developers are still required to obtain a long list of other approvals, depending on the specifics of the project. “One of the requirements [of a conditional use permit] is that they must meet all other federal, state, or county standards,” she said.
The process used in St. Louis County, and virtually everywhere else in Minnesota, however, provides prospective developers the guarantee that if they make the investment necessary to achieve all of the conditions for a project, the county will issue the conditional use permit. “There’s no point requiring them to invest a lot of money if it isn’t going to get approved,” said Anderson.
“They have it backwards,” said Julia Maki, a local real estate agent who is helping the Rosses sell their property after they gave up on getting approval for their RV park. Maki is also the former Greenwood Township Planning Director, so she has significantly more background in planning and zoning issues than most realtors. Maki said what has happened to the Rosses is unfortunate since their location was ideal for the kind of use they were proposing. “From a ‘P and Z’ perspective it’s an almost perfect spot,” she said, but it failed because the city’s planning and zoning officials made it cost-prohibitive. “We just have to try to get the city to realize this is hurting local businesses. Right now, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go through that process.”
Process creating legal jeopardy
Planning and zoning can be serious business in Minnesota, as it is elsewhere in the country. Any time private individuals or companies propose development projects, potentially big money is at stake, both in terms of development costs as well as potential income from a project.
That’s why planning and zoning decisions often wind up in court. And if a local planning and zoning board doesn’t have a clear process or fails to follow that process, that can put zoning officials on the hot seat.
And Keith may have already given Rose potential ammunition in a possible lawsuit. Telling Rose, in writing, that her list of requirements is subject to constant change, reflects a planning and zoning process that is, in effect, being made up by Keith as it goes. As Keith wrote to Rose earlier this year: “Please clearly understand that this is not an all-inclusive list, things may be added as time goes by, it is too hard to anticipate everything that may be necessary.”
Rose was blunt in comments last week before the planning and zoning commission. “My attorney told me if it isn’t in your ordinance, I don’t have to do it,” said Rose.
Maki said the conditional use process is typically straightforward. “You have a list of stuff they need to make a complete application,” said Maki. “If they don’t have all of that, you have 10-15 days to tell them what else they need to provide. Once they provide that, the application is complete.”
Once complete, state law dictates how things proceed. The planning and zoning authority has 60 days to issue a determination, complete with written findings, either allowing or disallowing the proposed use. If it goes longer than 60 days, without approval, the conditional use is automatically approved.
Planning and Zoning board chair Steve Altenburg argues that the city’s process is simply following the ordinance passed by the city council and that as long as the RV park proposers obtain all of their other permits, they will receive their conditional use permits. Altenburg said it’s required by law that they be issued permits if they comply with the ordinance.
Yet just last week, when Rose asked the city’s planning commission if they could guarantee they would approve his plan if he completed all of the items that Keith was now requiring, Altenburg said, “No.”
And Altenburg’s claim misses another key point— that the determination of whether a proposed use is consistent with the ordinance is largely a judgment call. The city’s ordinance states that, to be approved, a conditional use “is likely to be compatible with development permitted under the general provisions of this ordinance… that it will not be injurious to the use of the environment or detrimental to the rightful use and enjoyment of the other property in the immediate vicinity, nor substantially diminish or impair property values in the vicinity.”
The ordinance also requires that the use “is consistent with the overall comprehensive municipal plan and with the spirit and intent of the provisions of this ordinance.”
“I don’t think they’re getting it figured out,” said Ross. “It’s just a mess.”