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Our View: Developer gets a 'do-over' on row-home proposal

Our View editorial graphic
Our View
We are part of The Trust Project.

When a developer wants to raze former single-family dwellings and replace them with high-density, multi-family housing, owners of neighboring single-family homes generally don't put out their welcome mats.

We don't blame them.

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After all, their concerns about increased traffic, noise and parking woes often are valid, as are their fears that such changes could negatively impact property values in their neighborhood.

But such a dispute gets especially juicy when the developer sits on the city's planning and zoning commission. And, when one of the disgruntled neighbors is a well-known district court judge – well, it should come as no surprise that a proposed row-home development in an historic southwest Rochester neighborhood is now mired deeply in legal limbo.

The saga began 15 months ago, when developer Ben Kall proposed a row-home development at the corner of Sixth Street and 14th Avenue SW. His proposal would require a zoning change, which was approved on April 1 by the city's Community Development Department, but four weeks later the city's Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to recommend denying the change, with Kall recusing himself from the vote.

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Just three weeks later, the Rochester City Council opted to ignore that recommendation, voting 4-3 in favor of the zoning change.

Then the legal battle heated up. A handful of residents of the Folwell neighborhood filed a civil complaint seeking to reverse the council's decision.

Two weeks ago, they won their case. Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Troy Timmerman concluded that Rochester made a procedural error in what for the sake of brevity we'll call the “handoff” of information between the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council.

Timmerman, who handled the case because one of the plaintiffs is married to Third Judicial District Judge Kevin Lund, ruled that the city council and those opposed to the proposal should have received a formal report from Planning and Zoning before any decision was made. Presumably, such a report would have provided details and arguments against the development, and those details could potentially have shifted an already-tight council vote.

We won't go into the weeds of Timmerman's ruling, which to a non-lawyer might as well be written in Latin, but we see little reason for the city to challenge it through an appeal. While we don't believe there was a deliberate attempt to conceal information or deceive the public, we also believe any such zoning change requires full transparency and due diligence, which in this case appears to be lacking.

Folwell rowhome site.JPG
Property at 533 14th Avenue SW has been cleared for planned construction of 12 rowhomes, but a lawsuit filed by neighbors dealt the developer a setback.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

So, what now?

We hope Kall doesn't abandon the project, even if that means he has to go back to square one in the rezoning process.

Rochester needs new housing, and it needs new varieties of housing. While discussions of “affordable” homes and apartments rightly get plenty of attention, we also support the creation of upscale urban “infill” projects that will house multiple families within walking distance of schools, hospitals and business districts.

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Not every successful professional wants (or needs) a 4,000-square-foot home on what until recently was a half-acre of corn or soybeans or natural habitat outside the city limits. And, with gasoline prices being what they are, we expect even more demand for housing in and near Rochester's city core.

Therefore, we see Kall's proposal as an opportunity for the city to work out the kinks in the process it uses to rezone land, approve future developments and guide the inevitable (and sometimes unpopular) changes that are happening in some of the city's oldest residential neighborhoods. We expect more than a few such projects in the near future, and we'd prefer that they be approved or rejected without involving the court system.

We're not saying that Kall's current vision for the Folwell site should ultimately go ahead as planned. Further review might prove that 12 units is indeed too many for this particular location, and if a smaller number could produce a good financial return while reducing opposition from neighbors, then such a compromise might fast-track the rezoning process the next time around.

Such a deal might be in the neighborhood's best interests, because if Kall's proposal dies, the land in question won't stay empty for long. Something will be built there, and there's no guarantee it will be smaller or less objectionable than a row-home development.

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