City council hears arguments for flexibility
Blaine City Council members listened to concerns from the planning commission about a new way to evaluate development in Blaine’s downtown, but they also heard passionate support from the city manager for more flexibility, and fast.
At their January 23 meeting there was little discussion as council members voted to take city manager Gary Tomsic’s recommendation and set a public hearing, moving down the path to approve a conditional use process for major developments downtown. However, there was a lot of discussion at an earlier work session about how much flexibility was too much, or too little.
“It’s hard to balance flexibility and consistency,” said Blaine community development director Terry Galvin. Galvin said when he reviewed the proposal with the planning commission their primary concern was that the subjective nature of the conditional review process would lead to discontinuity from project to project. “The vision might be compromised,” he said. “They felt strongly about that.”
If the proposed amendment to city codes is approved, developers who do not wish to pursue a project governed by existing development regulations could apply for a conditional use permit. Armed with eight very general criteria about the project being “harmonious” with the city’s objectives and the surrounding area while not being ”detrimental,” staff, then planning commission and then city council would review the proposal and could approve it with any number of conditions.
The idea, Galvin said, would be trade more height, or less on-site parking, for public amenities like a view corridor or contributions to off-site city parking facilities. “It’s called win-win,” said council member Bruce Wolf.”
Galvin said he felt confident the process would work with the existing city government, but changes in staff could result in some discontinuity. “The conditional use review becomes very dependent on staff,” he said. “If we approve this we have to look at how do we have consistency from development to development. My concern is that what you think of as harmonious and put into action might be different from someone else.”
Bonnie Onyon wondered about developing additional criteria to guide the review process. “Do you think it could be amenable to planning commission if it was not so subjective?” she asked. Galvin answered that staff could work with planning commission to “tighten up” the process.
“Yeah, let’s make flexibility more rigid,” said a sarcastic council member Ken Ely. “Are we creating a conditional use process or adding another layer of regulation?” asked council member Jason Overstreet, adding he was satisfied staff could work with existing conditional use criteria. “That existing process more than covers it if we want to move forward and allow that latitude.”
Developer Rick Osburn’s Harborside condominium project at the intersection of H Street and Peace Portal Drive is on hold while Osburn works with city staff to find a way for it to make financial sense for him to build to city standards in a difficult location. “We’re looking for a regulatory avenue to pursue a variance,” he said. “The last thing I would like to see is more regulations. Developers might come up with some creative ideas regulations wouldn’t address.” Osburn added that he fears development running amok if the city loosens its grip too much – not taking into account state and federal building regulations and site constraints.
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Tomsic was vehement that council needed to be active in making policy decisions aimed at jump-starting a stagnant city center. “I don’t think we’ve taken the steps to merge the public interest and private interests,” he said. “The people you represent have made a considerable investment in the downtown. We feel like we’re on the verge of something happening but we fail to see it. There has not been a reciprocal investment from the private sector. So why isn’t that happening?”
Tomsic said city council needed to look at the development question from the standpoint of the developer, and at what it takes to make a commitment and risk their investment.
“Everyone is kind of sitting on their hands and waiting for the first person to take that risk. I’m speaking to property and business owners downtown and they tell me they’re waiting. We need to do what we can to let somebody be the pioneer.”
Tomsic asked that council not send the proposal to the planning commission, where he acknowledged “there was unanimous concern this was not a good idea,” but move straight into public hearings and city council approval to expedite the change.
The vote was unanimous to schedule a February 27 public hearing, the earliest date possible under state review regulations.
Former mayor John Liebert said the city was two years too late in relaxing downtown development regulations.
“There are a lot in the community who think development is a four-letter word and that has to change,” he said. “Sometimes we have our shorts a little too tight and in some ways we have stifled creativity.”