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Planning commission denies development plan at heron nest site

The Rochester Township planning and zoning commission voted 2-1 to reject a preliminary plat proposal Tuesday night.

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Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25, 2021.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The Rochester Township’s planning and zoning commission denied recommending a preliminary plat design for a proposed housing development at the site of a great blue heron nest colony.

Despite the denial in a 2 to 1 vote, final approval of the design is still up to the Rochester Township Board. They meet July 14 to take up the issue.

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The vote to deny Tuesday night came at the end of a nearly four hour meeting punctuated with an aborted attempt at a compromise and personal accusations during public comment.

International Properties LLC is proposing a 10-home development on about 30 acres of land south of Cascade Creek and north of Boulder Creek Lane Southwest.

That land housed a portion of a colony of dozens of great blue heron nests known as a rookery.

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Environmental groups and neighboring property owners oppose the development plan.

Tim Parkin, a member of the Save the Rookery group, said the decision to deny recommending the project to the Rochester Township Board is a turn in policy making.

“I’m cautiously optimistic the township is listening to its constituents and is changing direction,” he said.

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Tim Parkin, a member of the Save the Rookery group, speaks at a Rochester Township planning and zoning commission meeting Tuesday, June 14, 2022. The commission was considering whether to approve recommending a preliminary plat for a development at the site of great blue heron nest colony southwest of Rochester.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Nearly four dozen people attended the commission meeting Tuesday — most of them in opposition to the plan.

Most of the people attending had left the sweltering township garage at 4111 11th Ave. S.W., where the meeting was held by the time a decision was reached.

About a dozen commenters spoke, most bringing up environmental concerns and asking to preserve what is left of the rookery. Others noted the request would require township leaders to grant variances to land use and development laws to accommodate the project.

Commission member Arthur Handleman suggested the commission vote to approve a nine-lot development. After a brief recess, township attorney Peter Tiede said the commission couldn’t do that without the plan being resubmitted.

“Anything beyond approving or denying what’s before you runs some risk (legally),” Tiede said.

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Township PZ June 15.JPG
People attend a Rochester Township planning and zoning commission meeting at 4111 11th Ave. S.W. Tuesday, June 14, 2022. The commission was considering whether to approve recommending a preliminary plat for a development at the site of great blue heron nest colony southwest of Rochester.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Handleman after the meeting said he believed a nine-lot plan could be a good compromise.

“If you look at the two lots being combined, it’s a lot more attractive environmentally,” he said. Those lots would be along Cascade Creek and could preserve more trees for the rookery, he said, adding that a nine-lot compromise would also eliminate some of the need for variances, Handleman added.

That’s assuming the developers would agree to such a plan.

“The answer is no,” said Dan Heuel, attorney representing International Properties LLC. “We’ll give you an amended plan to make the 10 (acres) work.”

Heuel said he plans to put the preliminary plat plan before the township board July 14, 2022 regardless of the planning and zoning commission’s vote.

The project has had success in a similar position. The commission voted to deny recommending a general development plan for the development last fall. The township board approved the plan during its October meeting.

“There’s a history of this working,” Heuel said.

So far.

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Township PZ June 15 Tointon Heuel.JPG
Bill Tointon, of WSE Engineering Services, Ltd., speaks with attorney Dan Heuel at a Rochester Township planning and zoning commission meeting Tuesday, June 14, 2022. The commission was considering whether to approve recommending a preliminary plat for a development at the site of great blue heron nest colony southwest of Rochester. Heuel represents the developers, International Properties LLC, and Tointon is working with them to design it.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin

The Save the Rookery group filed a lawsuit in November 2021 accusing the township board of not following their own ordinances in accepting the plan. That suit is scheduled to be heard by a judge next month.

Nathan Clarke, Rochester Township Board member, said he doesn’t support the plan generally but added that approving it while that lawsuit is pending would be risky.

Clarke was one of two votes against approving the plan Tuesday night.

Colin Patterson, who voted to approve the plan Tuesday night, said the area needs more housing. He also noted that variances to developments are granted routinely. Developers are also working to accommodate wildlife with the plan, he said, noting the proposed road, being a private road, is narrower than a public road and that the design calls for a rain garden. Rain gardens reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

During the public comments, both sides accused the other of having ulterior motives.

Bill Tointon, a senior planner for WSE Engineering Services, Ltd, who is representing Aderonke Mordi, president of International Properties, LLC, in the development plan, accused neighboring property owners of “not wanting neighbors.”

Commenters accused township staff of shutting the public out of the process and rubber stamping the development.

Despite site plans still needing approval, construction of a road on the site is underway. Commenters accused former property owner Steve Connelly of deliberately waiting just before nesting season to destroy trees on the land to prevent the birds from nesting.

Great blue herons aren’t listed as endangered but their nests, when occupied, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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