The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 17, 2014

North Mankato puts land use under lens

City advises consultants writing comprehensive plan

By Dan Linehan

---- — NORTH MANKATO — The long-term future of the city’s undeveloped land, and a few of its established areas, was thrown on colorful zoning maps and subjected to the judgment of the City Council on Monday.

Consultants are in the midst of creating the city’s first comprehensive plan, and sought the council’s opinion on where homes, businesses and factories should be allowed.

The first draft of the plan, for example, has most of Northport Industrial Park, in the city’s northwest corner, zoned as “heavy industrial.”

But that designation could preclude other businesses from building there, and doesn’t even fit the existing users very well.

“Our industrial park is zoned heavy industrial but we don’t truly have a true heavy industrial user there,” City Planner Michael Fischer said.

The council agreed that it wanted to keep more flexibility here.

“I think the governing body (City Council) is of the mind that they don’t want to handcuff anybody to a particular zoning,” City Administrator John Harrenstein said.

Flexibility was a byword throughout the two-hour discussion, as councilors said they wanted to “guide” development, not dictate where it goes in all cases.

“We’re going to say with our plan ‘This is what I’d like to see here,’ and this is what this whole process is about,” Councilman Kim Spears said.

Discussions about plans to re-zone already-developed land were, naturally, more delicate.

For example, there were vague discussions about the future of the Camelot mobile home park, at the corner of Howard and Lor Ray drives.

“Both Mike (Fischer) and I, when we look at the future land use map, we see probably a different vision for the community in that area,” Harrenstein said of Camelot. There are synergies with the parks, including the new soccer fields, which could generate interesting opportunities, perhaps mixed-use, he said.

To be clear, no one discussed changing the land by City Council action.

“We’re just guiding that piece of property for a future use,” Mayor Mark Dehen said. “We’re by no means trying to move anybody.”

He said residents of the mobile home park have been invited to previous public meetings, and would be further informed as the plan is finished.

Dehen said he’d also like to see a trail in this area, connecting Caswell Park, Benson Park and the new soccer fields in between. Such a trail would also spare children the risk of crossing busy roads to get to school.

Another prime redevelopment area is the Tschohl farm, at the corner of Lee Boulevard and Lor Ray Drive. A community group has set its sights on it becoming an agricultural interpretive center, and developers have expressed interest in building apartments there.

Dehen said the neighbors to the east don’t want a high-density apartment complex there, and he agrees. He suggested that low or medium density, which typically includes townhomes, would be more appropriate. The council agreed.

Councilwoman Diane Norland liked the first idea.

“I envision it being a park, but we haven’t gotten there yet,” she said.

All told, if the city grew to include the area being discussed in the comprehensive plan, it would increase from 2,885 acres to 4,653 acres, or 61 percent.

Councilman Bob Freyberg said he was concerned that the amount of land zoned heavy industrial would nearly double, to 526 acres.

He said that sort of development is more expensive for the city, and isn’t really what the city of North Mankato is about.

“I would like to see our policies being more reflective of what you talk about in here, the quality of life, the recreational activities,” he told the consultants. And the city should fill the undeveloped areas in town before sending costly services sprawling into the countryside, he said.

Under the proposed land use plan, the amount of North Mankato devoted to low-density housing (typically single-family homes) would rise from 44 percent to 54 percent.