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Housing proposal remains hot topic for council

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has ordered that the Board of Zoning Appeals hold a hearing on a controversial low-income housing development planned in southwest Willmar.

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In another part of the council's Monday night meeting, a member said that Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership of Slayton should have been clear with the city about its plan to target of a certain religion.

The Housing Partnership has proposed building the 34-unit Westwind Estates development on 22 acres between Richland Avenue and 23rd Avenue Southwest, west of 16th Street Southwest.

The plan includes 22 lease-to-own twin homes, six single-family homes and six low-income rental units.

The council voted 4-to-2 to order the appeal hearing to be held as soon as possible. Voting yes were Ron Christianson, Cindy Swenson, Jim Dokken and Rick Fagerlie. Voting against were Steve Gardner and Bruce DeBlieck. Denis Anderson and Doug Reese were absent from the meeting.

The Housing Partnership's had applied in late November to build a 34-unit development on 22 acres between Richland Avenue and 23rd Avenue Southwest, west of 16th Street Southwest. The plan includes 22 lease-to-own twin homes, six single-family homes and six low-income rental units.

The Planning Commission approved the application in January, and a later tie vote by the City Council let the approval stand.

Gary Peterson, who owns land next to the development, appealed the ruling. The appeal was to have been held a week ago until City Attorney Rich Ronning said the time period for an appeal had expired.

Ronning researched the timeline after the partnership's attorneys pointed out a Court of Appeals ruling from 2004 that said the appeal period ends 60 day from the date an application is accepted as being complete. City officials had previously thought that the 60-day appeal window began when the permit was approved by the Planning Commission.

Peterson brought his attorney to the meeting Monday to argue that the Court of Appeals ruling doesn't necessarily prevent the city from holding an appeal hearing.

City ordinance "grants Mr. Peterson and his neighbors the opportunity to be heard," said attorney Jim Mogen of St. Cloud.

Ronning said he still held the same opinion he did 10 days ago, that the appeal period had expired. "To have a hearing at this time is an exercise is futility," Ronning said. Either side could still take the issue to District Court, he said.

Christianson said he felt the Peterson had been "wronged" by not knowing about the 60-day time limit. "I have the feeling this thing was shoved down our throats," Christianson said.

Targeting religion

During the meeting, Christianson also read from a grant application the Housing Partnership filed with the state last year.

He questioned the partnership's development fees and the cost per square foot of the twin homes.

The grant application asks if the partnership will be targeting an "underserved" population with its development. The answer makes it clear that the partnership is "targeting a religion," Christianson said, "and no one knew it."

Gardner said he wanted to understand the religion issue that Christianson was raising, but Christianson would not elaborate on his comment. He said he would give members of the council copies of the document after the meeting.

Gardner pressed him again to identify the religion and asked, "Is this the underlying thing that is driving the opposition to this?"

After a short, tense silence, Mayor Les Heitke pointed out that the document is now public, since Christianson read from it at a public meeting, and he directed the city staff to make the document available for the public to review at City Hall.

A copy of the application was provided to the Tribune after the meeting Monday. In the question about underserved populations, the partnership answered that it would use financing vehicles "to target Muslim homebuyers who do not utilize traditional financing products and other minority and low income home buyers." The application also says, "The development will specifically target underserved and emerging markets within the Latino, East African and Southeast Asian residents of Willmar."

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