Rochester Township Board approves development plan at heron nest site
The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of the development despite the planning and zoning commission's recommendation against it.
ROCHESTER — The Rochester Township Board has approved a preliminary plan for a housing development at the site of a great blue heron nest colony.
The 3-to-2 decision Thursday was the second time the board has voted in opposition to the township’s planning and zoning commission’s recommendation regarding the proposed development.
International Properties LLC is proposing a 10-home development southwest of Rochester.
Company owner Aderonke Mordi sank to her knees and pumped her fist in the air as the board voted to approve the plan.
The 30-acre site was home to a great blue heron nest colony known as a rookery. The nests, when occupied, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Great blue herons, a migratory wading bird, aren’t endangered and when their nests are empty, the nesting area has no special legal protections.
Environmental groups and neighboring property owners say the upland nest colony, not near a major body of water, is a unique natural resource that should be preserved. Legal action brought by neighbors and the group Save the Rookery has taken legal action that has delayed the development.
The township planning and zoning commission voted 2-to-1 in June to recommend denying a plan to build 10 houses on the site.
In Thursday’s meeting, the Township Board voted to approve an amended plan that includes 10 homes but asks for fewer variances to township development ordinances than the one the planning and zoning commission recommended denying.
Placing and zoning commission member Arthur Handleman attended the meeting and asked the board not to approve a plan that hadn’t been reviewed by their planning commission.
He called the plan an “end around” of the commission.
“They’ve thumbed their nose at the process,” he said of the developers and their legal representatives attending the meeting.
Bill Tointon, a senior planner for WSE Engineering Services, Ltd, who is representing Mordi in the development hinted at legal action against the township if they denied the proposal.
“This is going to potentially go beyond this board,” he said. “We need to be super careful here.”
Tointon and Township Board members both noted the board often approves development plans asking for multiple variances to township ordinances.
It’s a policy some board members said may need to be revisited. However, board member Matt Kitzmann said not approving the development would be “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Board member Brian Zmolek, who voted in favor of the development, expressed reservations about approving a plan that hadn’t been vetted by the planning and zoning commission.
The board voted in November 2021 to approve a general development plan despite the planning and zoning’s recommendation against approving the development plan.
However, Zmolek added putting the property owners into a development agreement was the best way the township would have a say in how the land is used.
“I know there’s a great deal of interest in what can or can’t be done on that property,” he said.
Nathan Clarke, who attended the meeting remotely, said by voting in favor of the development, the board is ignoring the constituents its members are elected to represent.
“How do you reconcile the public outcry?” he asked.
Most of the trees containing nests have already been destroyed and construction for a road in the development has begun.
Tim Parkin, a member of the Save the Rookery group, said the fight to save the land from development isn’t over. Arguments in a court case over the board’s vote in November to approve the general development plan were heard July 15. Olmsted County District Court Judge Pamela King has 90 days to make a ruling on that case.