by CHRIS ROGERS
A proposed subdivision on Garvin Heights Road must follow the city of Winona’s bluff protection rules, the City Council ruled in a 4-2 vote last week. The council’s decision overturned exceptions to the rules that another city board had granted. In the first major, environmental-regulation decision faced by the current City Council, the council chose to stick to city code rather than relax rules to facilitate development.
ProGro Leasing — a company partly owned by Knitcraft founder Bernhard Brenner — proposed a 73-home subdivision on farmland just south of Buck Ridge Drive. The city’s bluff protection ordinance normally requires buildings and roads to be built 50 feet away from the edge of a bluff. However, ProGro Leasing applied for and the city’s Board of Adjustment (BOA) granted exceptions — or variances — to those rules. The variances gave ProGro permission to build 26 homes less than 50 feet from the bluff — with the closest being just 10 feet away — and to construct a neighborhood street across a portion of the bluff. Winona citizen Mike Kennedy appealed the variances to the City Council. The debate focused on whether the development would lead to erosion and runoff, whether there was a non-monetary justification for the variances, and whether the variances would set a precedent that weakens the bluff protection ordinance.
This subdivision would actually decrease erosion compared to the tillage and row-crop farming that is happening on portions of the bluff right now, ProGro Leasing representative Steven Voigt said. An engineer for Johnson & Scofield, Voigt presented an analysis that found that — despite adding 12 acres of impervious surfaces like roofs and driveways and reducing the amount of woods by six acres— the proposed subdivision would actually decrease runoff and erosion by eliminating 21 acres of row crops and increasing brush and grass cover on the property. In a two-year rain event, the subdivision would produce 22-percent less runoff and, in a year, would allow 67-percent less soil erosion, according to Voigt. The subdivision would include stormwater detention ponds built on the side of the bluff designed to capture runoff from a 100-year storm event.
“We looked at that, and to us, [the subdivision] seemed like it might be a better deal than agriculture,” BOA Chair Chris Sanchez said, explaining the board’s decision.
Planning for the 100-year rain event is no longer good enough, Kennedy argued. In recent years, the region has experienced a 500-year storm and even a 1,000-year storm in 2007, he noted, raising concerns the detention ponds could fail in a major deluge. Winona’s bluffs are fragile, unique features that took thousands of years to develop and are an essential part of the city’s identity, Kennedy said. “The potential for erosion increases exponentially as you get closer to the bluff protection overlay district,” Kennedy said, referring to the city’s formal name for bluff zones. Any development near the bluffs should be planned with great caution, and the city’s bluff protection ordinance does just that, he stated. Just as important as preventing literal soil erosion is preventing the erosion of the bluff protection ordinance, Kennedy said. “Don’t open Pandora’s box on future developments that also want variances on the setback,” he told the council.
Kennedy argued the only reason ProGro needed a variance was so it could gain more revenue from increasing the number of home lots in the subdivision. Under state law, economic considerations cannot be the sole reason for granting a variance. “The cost benefits of packing in more and smaller lots into this bluff protection overlay district is an insufficient reason to have allowed this variance,” Kennedy maintained.
The BOA unanimously agreed economics were not the only reason for the variance, Johnson & Scofield Surveyor Brian Wodele said, speaking on behalf of ProGro. “Really, when it comes down to the subdivision, though, it’s not only a question of will there be less money made without the variance, it’s a question of, can the subdivision even happen at all?” he stated. “In some areas, if the variance was eliminated, you’d have homes on only one side of the road,” Wodele continued. “This would create a scenario where you’re building public infrastructure, roads and utilities, to only serve one stretch of houses, which is actually very contrary to what the zoning ordinance says within it. You want to maximize public infrastructure to serve as many units as possible.”
City staff and committees put a lot of work and care into the bluff protection ordinance, said Winonan Phil Feiten, who sat on the city’s Planning Commission during the ordinance’s creation. “Ordinances and rules of the city are meant to be followed,” he continued. “There does not appear to be justification in this particular case other than monetary [reasons] for changing rules.” People downhill will have to deal with whatever soil is eroded from the bluffs, Feiten stated. “The 50-foot setback is to protect the blufftops and protect us down here,” he added.
During the public hearing, several other citizens urged the City Council to overturn the variances and uphold the bluff protection ordinance.
Winona Housing Task Force Chair Jim Vrchota encouraged the City Council to support the subdivision’s requests, saying that new home construction would help meet Winona’s housing needs and, by relaxing zoning requirements and allowing increased density, the city could enable the developers to offer more affordable home sites. Because of the cost of labor and materials, newly built homes often run over $200,000. The city’s 2016 housing study found an adequate supply of vacant lots for new home construction and a need for affordable housing. Latching onto a statement Voigt made about the homes being, at the largest, 5,000-square-feet, Winonan Peter Marham said, “I don’t really ever see 5,000 square feet as being affordable.”
Having new, nicer homes for people looking to move up could free up more affordable homes elsewhere in the city, City Council member Michelle Alexander said. As for concerns about bluff protection, she pointed out the proposed home lots that would sit closest to the bluff. “Really there are only four lots when looking at this that really give me heartburn,” Alexander stated.
Alexander and council member George Borzyskowski cast dissenting votes in the 4-2 decision to overturn the BOA’s decision and deny the variances for ProGro’s subdivision. Council members Eileen Moeller, Paul Schollmeier, Al Thurley, and Mayor Mark Peterson voted in the majority.
“This seems to be an economic decision related to the size of the development,” Schollmeier said, explaining that he believed economics were the primary reason for the variance and therefore the variance should not be allowed. “We have an ordinance for a 50-foot setback,” he continued. “We’re not meeting it … I think we need to let this ordinance work on its own and encourage developers to develop within the ordinance.”
Schollmeier noted that he voted last year in favor of rezoning the ProGro property to allow the subdivision development. “So I’m not opposed to developing up there. I just want to make that clear. We also have the ordinance, and I think it’s a well thought-out and researched piece of legislation. I think that we can develop, and we can follow the ordinance.”
“Ten feet troubles me a lot,” Peterson said. “I just can’t get past 10 feet.”
Pointing to a criterion that asks whether the variance would alter the essential character of an area, Moeller said, “I think packing as many units in there as possible will alter the essential character of the area.”
“I am kind of torn between the idea of having additional housing opportunities for the community,” Thurley stated. “But … I think there is a way to do that using the ordinance that is in place. I agree that this is an ordinance that we need to make sure we carefully review and, in most cases, carefully adhere to, and I don’t think this is a case where I’d make an exception to the 50-foot setback.”
The City Council’s decision is not yet final. City staff are drafting a formal resolution denying the variances for the council to approve at its next meeting.
Correction: In its September 5 edition, the Winona Post incorrectly reported that Mike Kennedy currently lives in a Garvin Heights neighborhood. He lives in central Winona.