The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 18, 2013

North Mankato approves Marigold variances

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

NORTH MANKATO — Developer Van Moody’s proposed 64-unit apartment building on the Marigold site took a step forward Monday, as the City Council voted 3-2 to grant the project several exceptions to city rules.

The latest step in what Mayor Mark Dehen called “an ongoing, drawn-out, very emotional process for all of us,” the decision does not, by itself, approve the project. But it does allow the developer to advance his plans for the site, which are believed to include a request for subsidies.

The council was deciding whether to set aside some of its ordinances for this specific project. For example, city code requires a lot size of 102,500 square feet to accommodate the number of units proposed, but the lot is much too small — it’s only 59,677 square feet.

State law requires a three-part test before cities can grant exceptions, also called variances, and Dehen explained how he believed the project met all three. Councilman Kim Spears offered a minority dissent, and Councilman Bob Freyberg joined him in voting against the proposal.

First, Dehen said the proposal uses the land “in a reasonable manner,” to borrow the phrase from law, because apartment complexes are common in downtown Mankato and North Mankato.

Second, he said the lot is “unique” because its loose, sandy soils are not ideal for supporting buildings. Councilman Billy Steiner said the fact that the site hadn’t been built upon for 23 years demonstrates that it presents unique challenges.

Spears, though, said the site could be used as a park, or a farmer’s market.

“There’s other uses for this, no question,” he said.

The third part of the test requires the proposal not “alter the essential character of the locality.”

Each councilman took a different view of the word “locality.”

Spears said “it’s been said this thing will loom over everything else,” such as the Wheeler Avenue houses across the street.

But Dehen said the existence of Koppen Gardens, an eight-story apartment building four blocks away, shows that this four-story building wouldn’t be anything new.

Councilwoman Diane Norland voted for the variance not for legal reasons but because she supported the project.

“It will grow the downtown into a lively, active downtown and be an asset to the community,” she said.

Four people testified against the proposal, including Belgrade Avenue resident Denny Savick, who said “the council cannot sit here in good conscience and break its own laws.”

He vowed to spend his own money on a legal challenge if the council approved the variances. After the 3-2 vote, Savick immediately strode from the council chambers, cursing under his breath.

City Attorney Michael Kennedy advised the council not to pay such threats any mind.

“People oftentimes threaten to sue the city and I tell them they should get in line,” he said.

Kennedy said he gave written advice to the council about the variance issue, but declined to share it because of attorney-client privilege. He said his advice was neutral, and offered arguments for both sides.

“I didn’t advocate for one position or the other,” he said.