My View: North Mankato erred on sign approval

Barb Church

At the May 20 North Mankato City Council meeting, the council granted a variance request from Holy Rosary Catholic Church to allow installation of a dynamic sign in a residential area.

Section 154.05(P) of the North Mankato City Code specifically states that dynamic signs are not allowed in residential areas and describes a dynamic display, in short, as “a sign that appears to have movement or appears to change caused by any method other than physically removing and replacing the sign or its components” as well as other characteristics including “LED lights manipulated through digital input.”

North Mankato is a member of the League of Minnesota Cities (LOMC), whose mission is “to promote excellence in local government through effective advocacy, expert analysis, and trusted guidance for all Minnesota cities.” The LOMC Handbook’s chapter on variances says “use variances are not generally allowed in MN” and that the following three factors must be considered when reviewing a variance request:

First factor: The landowner proposes to use the property in a reasonable manner that is not otherwise permitted by the ordinance.

Second factor: The landowner’s problem is due to circumstances unique to the property not caused by the landowner. The uniqueness generally relates to the physical characteristics of the particular piece of property such as a bluff or ravine.

Third factor: The variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the locality.

While the first factor may be satisfied in the Holy Rosary request, there is no way the second factor was met. That factor is not whether the requested use is unique, the question is are there unique characteristics of the property. In this case, there was no showing of circumstances unique to the property.

Factor three could also be legally challenged, as the city code states no dynamic signs are allowed in residential areas and state statute says no variance may be granted that permits a use that is not allowed in the zoning district in which the subject property is located.

In addition, the council did not make any findings of fact to substantiate how the three factors were met which is recommended by case law. It is also important to know that all three statutory factors must be considered, findings made, and each factor satisfied in order to grant a variance. At the May 9 Planning Commission meeting, the city’s legal counsel said the three factors could not be met.

During the council’s discussion regarding this matter, the city’s legal counsel spoke about the First Amendment rights of churches, seeming to indicate that churches can do what they want with regards to sign size and style. I believe that opinion is in error. I am a strong supporter of First Amendment rights. However, the First Amendment protects rights with respect to content, but a city can regulate the size and type of signage.

Finally, while the city did notify neighbors about a Planning Commission hearing meeting to review the Holy Rosary variance request, it did not publish the notice in the city’s official newspaper as required by city code.

Under current state law and local ordinance, this variance should not have been granted. There is still time for a legal challenge regarding the city’s approval of this variance by neighbors or residents who oppose this request.

The better resolution would be that the North Mankato City Council promptly rescind its approval of the variance. That action would also eliminate a precedent that could be used in future requests from other houses of worship in other residential areas of the city. If council members believe the request has merit, they need to consider a code change, but only after carefully considering the consequences of making such a change.

Barb Church works in accounting for various businesses and organizations and regularly attends North Mankato City Council and other city meetings. She lives in North Mankato.

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