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Council hears pleas for understanding, reconciliation over project; remains divided on veto

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council failed 4-4 Monday night to override Mayor Les Heitke's veto of the council's April 7 rejection of the $350,000 state grant for the controversial Westwind Estates Third Addition housing project.

The mayor issued the veto in an April 8 letter to the council.

Council member Ron Christianson offered the override motion, based on the fact the Board of Zoning Appeals ruled there is no conditional use permit in place for the project.

A conditional use permit that would allow Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership to sell twin homes as part of the affordable housing project was approved by the Planning Commission.

But the Board of Zoning Appeals threw out the permit, saying the project will diminish or impair property values of nearby homes.

"I personally think there's no conditional use permit in place and this project cannot move forward unless some resolution is had there,'' Christianson said. "How can we receive money on a project that doesn't have the (permit) when it's required for that project? If they want to bring a new project to us, that's fine,'' referring to a rental project that's allowed without a conditional use permit.

He said the partnership will return for the grant request if the partnership sues the city and the court rules in favor of the project.

Christianson said he made the motion for the entire city and not just Ward 2, which is represents.

There was no other discussion.

Voting in favor of the override were Christianson, Cindy Swenson, Jim Dokken and Rick Fagerlie.

Voting against were Denis Anderson, Doug Reese, Steve Gardner and Bruce DeBlieck.

Heitke, with the council's permission, moved the veto consideration farther up in the agenda for many of the 35-40 people who came for the veto action.

In his letter, Heitke had said the grant is "simply a pass-through by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to the city of Willmar'' for the 34-unit project. Also, Heitke had written that not all council members were present for the April 7 discussion.

Before the veto was considered, the council heard pleas for understanding and reconciliation over differences of opinion generated by the controversial project proposed in southwest Willmar.

The partnership is proposing to build 22 lease-to-own twin homes, six single-family homes and six low income rental units.

Supporters say the housing will target an underserved population and will provide a financing vehicle for homebuyers who do not use traditional financing products.

Neighboring homeowners say the types and value of the proposed housing are not compatible with the nearby single-family homes and will lead to decreased property values. They say their opposition is not based on race.

The council is evenly divided over the project and has been unable to muster the majority vote needed to allow streets and utilities to be built there this year.

The Rev. Pablo Obregon said he's lived in Willmar since 1992 and has many friends. He said the families that live here took chances for a better life and better homes. He said Willmar continues to grow, but like children and parents, has growing pains.

He said the project has created division in the community, and he urged the council to take chances for a better community. "We are keeping you in our prayers,'' he said.

Kristen Thaden, whose home is located next to the Westwind site, said the project has cast a shadow over Willmar and she said people who have little information are taking negative comments and running with them. She said the issue is about buildings and structures.

The Rev. Naomi Mahler said she is concerned about the division that is taking place and said she is lifting up prayers for openness and conversation. She supports the project, saying it would bring stability and provide a financing vehicle for Muslim homebuyers.

Connie Vetter said she had lived in Willmar since 1990 and praised the experience her sons have received in participating in athletics with kids of other ethnic backgrounds. She spoke in favor of the housing project. "I know there is a need for housing for workforce people,'' she said.

Sue Quist spoke against the project, saying it is a land use issue. She said she did not want to segregate people in one area. "It is not about the people for they need to be part of us,'' she said.

John Sullivan questioned whether the Board of Zoning Appeals March 31 hearing was legal that overturned the Planning Commission's issuance of the Westwind conditional use permit.

Sullivan said the Zoning Appeals Board is supposed to hear appeals of the decision of the zoning administrator. He said the Planning Commission is not the zoning administrator.