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Willmar turns back plans for low-income housing

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Willmar turns back plans for low-income housing
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has refused to support a proposed housing development in southwest Willmar.

The council voted 5-to-3 Monday evening to deny a resolution of support for the Westwinds Estates projects proposed by the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership.

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About 70 people attended the meeting. Those who couldn't find a seat in the council chambers at the Willmar Municipal Utilities building stood in the hall for more than two hours to hear the council's decision.

Council members and residents discussed the issue for about two hours before the council voted.

Voting against the development were Ron Christianson, Denis Anderson, Cindy Swenson, Jim Dokken and Rick Fagerlie. Voting in favor were Doug Reese, Steve Gardner and Bruce DeBlieck.

The discussion led the mayor to threaten to clear the room at one point and brought a proclamation of faith from a member of the council. The development, which would have been built south of 19th Avenue, would have included 51 units, a mixture of single-family homes and twin homes. More than half of the units would have been offered to low-income and very-low-income buyers on lease-to-own program.

Buyers would have received education in home ownership and its responsibilities, and the development would have had an onsite property manager.

Rick Goodemann, executive director of the housing partnership, said the same project was brought to the City Council a year ago, and the council supported it.

The project did not work out at the previous site, so it was moved to the land in southwest Willmar, which was already owned by the housing partnership, said Dorothy Gaffaney, director of Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Members of the City Council asked Goodemann a number of questions about the need for the housing and about details of the proposal. Several said they had received many calls from residents who lived in that area.

Goodemann said a housing study conducted last year indicated a need for more housing that was accessible for low-income people.

So why not rehab older houses in the community, council members asked. The housing partnership does that type of work, too, but saw a need in Willmar to go beyond it, Goodemann said.

"We do not create slums," he said. "We pride ourselves in developing products of value."

Christianson, a building contractor, said he didn't believe the need was there and criticized using a study that was now more than a year old. The development would be in competition with local businesses, and he hadn't heard a "public outcry" for more low-income housing, he said.

When Christianson finished speaking, many in the crowd applauded loudly. Mayor Les Heitke pounded his gavel over the applause. "We will have order in this room, or else I will clear the chambers," he said. There was no applause during the rest of the discussion.

A succession of residents spoke against the project. Most said they were concerned about the impact the development might have on the neighborhood and on their property values.

Gary Peterson, who lives nearby and who sold the land to the housing partnership, threatened legal action if the project proceeds, because he felt it would violate conditions of the purchase agreement.

A few spoke in favor. Carol Laumer suggested that people offer a welcoming hand to the people who would live in the development, rather than being against it.

"As a person of faith, I have to support this," Gardner said just before the vote. "I am commanded by my faith to support this." He spoke of orders in the Bible to not harden his heart to his neighbors and to extend a hand to those in need.

Heitke also spoke before the council vote. In recent weeks, the city has turned back a business development and residents have fought against a psychiatric hospital.

"I am concerned about what is emerging as a negative attitude in this community," he said.

After the vote, Goodemann said he didn't know what the next step would be regarding Westwinds Estates.

The reception he received Monday is unusual for projects proposed by the housing partnership, he said.

"This is not common," he said. "We are supported in our projects; we do them well."

The partnership has been working in some Minnesota communities for a decade, he said.

Goodemann said he has received a similar reception once before -- a year ago, in Willmar.

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