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Council OKs street plans, but Westwind contention continues ron christianson steve gardner planny commission gary peterson

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council in a special meeting Monday evening unanimously approved the 2008 street improvement program, minus new streets and street lights for the controversial Westwind Estates housing development in southwest Willmar, and minus preliminary engineering for the Garfield School storm water detention pond.

But four council members walked out at the end of the 35-minute meeting after a 4-4 vote prevented the council from adjourning and a motion was made but ruled invalid to reinstate Westwind in the street improvement program.

The council approved an amendment by council member Ron Christianson, seconded by Steve Gardner, to remove the Westwind improvements, estimated at $835,000, because the Board of Zoning Appeals was to hear Gary Peterson's appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of Westwind's conditional use permit later in the evening. In repeating his opposition to Westwind, Christianson said the low-income project proposed in his Second Ward was not good for Willmar.

He suggested the developer, Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership of Slayton, buy and improve housing scattered around the city. He said the council does not have to approve the project.

Council member Doug Reese said the council does not approve projects, but sets policies for developers. "As long as the project developer or owner has met the policies that are set by the council, approval of the project should then be given,'' he said.

"The fact is, the developer, seems to me, has met all the requirements we've set and set by this council,'' Reese said. He said the popularity of a project or developer is not relevant.

Reese asked City Attorney Rich Ronning how much discretion the council can exercise. Ronning said the council doesn't have much discretion. If the developer follows established ordinances, the developer is entitled to the permits, he said.

Council member Jim Dokken said he wasn't sure the council has been given all the information on Westwind, and said he'd call for a review of all the information. He said the council should make decisions based "on all of the good, useful information.''

Council member Denis Anderson the council has acted on Westwind and he said it doesn't need to rehash the proposal.

The motion by Reese to approve the $3.3 million street program was approved unanimously by Christianson, Gardner, Reese, Cindy Swenson, Anderson, Rick Fagerlie, Bruce DeBlieck and Jim Dokken. Mayor Les Heitke declared the improvements approved.

Heitke asked if Westwind was to be assessed for the improvements. City Administrator Michael Schmit and Ronning said Westwind would not be assessed, was a "cash'' improvement, and would not need seven affirmative (super majority) council votes to proceed.

Christianson said the reason Gardner seconded the motion to remove Westwind was to offer another motion later in the meeting that would result in a 4-4 vote and possible a tie-breaking vote by Heitke.

"So what's your point?'' Heitke asked.

"We'll see after we vote on the motion,'' Christianson said.

Gardner asked for clarification on the quorum issue because he presumed four members might leave when the motion (to adjourn) was made.

Ronning said if four council member leave, the council would no longer have a quorum. He said the charter makes reference to returning members to the table, but doesn't say how to do it.

"A little more drama here tonight,'' said Heitke.

Christianson offered a motion, seconded by Swenson, to adjourn, and then Gardner requested the roll-call vote.

The vote was 4-4 with Christianson, Fagerlie, Dokken and Swenson voting in favor and Gardner, Anderson, Reese and DeBlieck voting against. Heitke declared a tie vote and the motion failed. "We are not adjourned,'' he said.

Christianson then said he had another meeting to attend, and he, Swenson, Fagerlie and Dokken walked out of the room.

Gardner then offered a motion to approve the Westwind improvements, seconded by DeBlieck. But City Clerk Kevin Halliday said the motion was out of order when there was no quorum. The only motion possible, said Ronning, was to adjourn.

Gardner then criticized the walkout, calling it "possibly one of the most childish actions that elected officials can take ... For people to consciously leave in an organized effort, and I have serious questions as to whether or not the Open Meeting Law was violated when you see this action, is incredible to me.''

The council had been deadlocked on the improvements since the program failed at a March 3 meeting. Seven affirmative votes are needed to tax benefited property owners for part of the cost of this summer's projects, and only three affirmative votes were cast.

The holdup has come over street improvements in a proposed low- and moderate-income Westwind Estates Third Addition housing development in southwest Willmar. Four council members are opposed to the development and want the development dropped from the improvement list.

Homeowners near the Westwind site are contesting that the development of mostly twin homes is not compatible with nearby existing single-family homes.

The city can advertise for construction bids now that the program is adopted.

One of the proposed street projects is construction of the Fifth Street Southeast "mall road'' just east of the Kandi Mall between Willmar Avenue and 19th Avenue Southeast.