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Johnson says thinking in the long-term is key to city council's land use issues

WILLMAR -- Tim Johnson says land use decisions by the Willmar City Council require better planning, long-term thinking and consideration of all possible consequences.

"I think you really have to look at it hard to think about what are the possible consequences of this decision, try to think of every possible consequence, not just the obvious ones. It's funny when you do that how you can find that maybe this is a bad idea.'' Johnson says.

"What looked like a good idea when you really look at it closely and give it some thought you may discover all kinds of things about that could be adverse.''

Johnson is running for the Ward 2 seat held by incumbent Steve Gardner. Constituents unhappy with Gardner's support for the controversial Westwind affordable housing project in the ward gave Johnson a nearly 4-to-1 vote margin over Gardner in the three-way September primary election.

"I think it is an important issue because it will affect future development. And I have a concern that what was done with Westwind might have been an offshoot of some poor planning with respect to zoning issues and how that land was zoned to start with,'' he says.

Johnson thinks Westwind has further depressed an already shaky market for homeowners near the project who are trying to sell their homes. It's a consequence that Johnson said wasn't considered. He thinks the project may affect future development south of Westwind.

"We have a project that comes into the city. It looks like a good deal in the short term, but I think from the long-term perspective it was a mistake. I would like to hope that I am wrong on that, but I don't think I am.''

Johnson thinks City Hall and other council members were in favor of Westwind from the beginning. Johnson takes exception to Gardner's comments that Gardner supported the project because it was allowed by law.

"He was in favor of that project from the get-go and basically was trying to do is to justify his decision to the voters,'' Johnson continued. "He was in favor of it before there were any legal questions raised. That's an attempt to disguise a mistake.''

As a lawyer, Johnson said, he understands attorney-client privilege and wasn't privy to details explained in confidence by League of Minnesota Cities' Insurance Trust counsel to City Council members regarding the potential Westwind lawsuit against the city.

But Johnson says he's heard "bits and pieces'' from people about some of the discussion and he thinks there was a conflict of interest with the League giving advice to the city.

"They're worried about their insurance fund. They're not worried about taking care of the city of Willmar and what Willmar needs,'' he said. "I don't think the city was getting good advice and hence I question Mr. Gardner's position that legally (he) voted correctly to comply with the law.''

Also, Johnson questions the correctness of the legal precedent cited by the developer before the developer changed the nature of the Westwind project.

"There was other legal precedent that came after that, and they were looking at a Court of Appeals decision, which isn't the final word on appellate issues. The Supreme Court is,'' he said.

When the Tribune asked if there is any good place for affordable housing, Johnson said he favors rehabilitating existing housing in the core areas of the city where sewer, water, power and streets are present to handle the present housing.

"Then we're not only improving and enhancing the area close to the downtown, I think that might in turn do something to help revitalize the downtown,'' he said. "But if we allow the areas around the core commercial area of our downtown to continue to deteriorate, I think your ability to do anything about the downtown is going to be crippled.''

Johnson said he's thought about running for City Council for several years and he finally decided the timing was right.

"I grew up in the community. The community really did affect my values,'' he said. "The community has been good to me. I've made a good living here. I think I owe something to the community and I want to contribute. It's more than just land use. That's one of the issues. There's other things, too.''