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Gardner says objective criteria is a must when council facing land use issues

WILLMAR -- City Council decisions about land use are extremely important if judged simply by contention or controversy, says Steve Gardner, who's seeking a second four-year term from Ward 2 on the Willmar City Council in Tuesday's ge-neral election. But he says those decisions must be based on objective criteria that benefits the city at large.

"You need to have a land use plan. You need to have objective criteria upon which you base those decisions,'' Gardner says.

"I think council members are required to make their decisions not necessarily based on what might be popular but based upon that objective criteria,'' he says. "Now, it's easy enough to learn that objective criteria if you really care about using it. If all you care about is pandering to your base constituency, then any old decision that you pick out of a hat will do.''

Gardner is facing stiff opposition from Tim Johnson who has tapped into constituent discontent over Gardner's support for the controversial Westwind affordable housing project in the ward.

Gardner says Johnson said at the last League of Women Voters' debate that Johnson would have voted to allow the council's Westwind decision to go to district court. But Gardner said he doesn't believe Johnson would be so sure of that statement had Johnson heard what council members heard from attorneys from the League of Minnesota Cities' Insurance Trust.

"And all you have to do is look at the ultimate decision of the 'the walkout four' to come back to the table,'' said Gardner. "It's very obvious they heard something from our legal counsel that caused them to come back to the table even though they did not like the ultimate decision. Certainly they heard something that was not in the best interest of the city of Willmar and they had to come back to the table and fulfill their oath.''

The Tribune asked Gardner if any place in town is suitable for affordable housing. He said there has to be. But anytime affordable housing is discussed, opponents say it's a bad project by a bad developer for bad people in a bad location, he said.

"They really don't care about making decisions on a factual basis. They think that if they can drive enough emotion ... and strike enough fear into the hearts of people that they will ultimately prevail, and sometimes they have,'' he said.

Gardner said the Westwind developer had proposed an earlier project in southeast Willmar. Gardner made a motion to allow the project but couldn't receive a second for the motion.

"Opponents of Westwind would not even give a second to placing this somewhere else,'' he recalls. "I'm not certain that that served the voters of the Second Ward particularly well. But that was a decision obviously based upon an ideology and not supported by the facts.''

What about remodeling homes and building single family homes in the core city, as some council members advocate?

"I don't have an objection to rehabilitating existing housing stock,'' he said. "The problem becomes that that's not the only tool in your toolbox. If all you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail, and you're just not going be able to solve our problems of affordable housing with one idea.''

Gardner believes land use is the only reason he's facing opposition, but urges voters to look at his record of making thoughtful and careful decisions in other areas, such as supporting increased library funding, supporting efforts of downtown business interests to rejuvenate downtown in a cost-effective manner, working for funding to solving storm water problems, for writing findings of fact that denied an ill-conceived plan approved by the Planning Commission for a salvage yard adjoining a Second Ward residential neighborhood, and supporting the Speak Your Peace Civility Project.