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Comprehensive plan proposes policies and guidelines for future development

A "for sale" sign is posted on land near the city of Willmar's former municipal airport. The city of Willmar has spent the past three years debating its comprehensive plan to update it for future land development projects. The first comprehensive guide plan was adopted in 1961. The plan was revised in 1978 and again in 1989. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Willmar has seen some big changes during the past 20 years. A new airport was built west of the city and construction of a new wastewater treatment facility.

Commercial and retail business has increased along South First Street, and residential development has spread throughout the city's northern and southern areas.

In order to guide future growth and land development for the next 20 years, the city is updating its comprehensive plan.

The first comprehensive guide plan was adopted in 1961. The plan was revised in 1978 and again in 1989.

After nearly three years of discussion, study and writing, a proposed draft of the updated plan has been completed by city planning staff, the Planning Commission and the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission.

The proposed plan will be discussed Thursday by the City Council's Community Development Committee before being considered by the council.

City policy generally plans for growth over 20 years, said Planning Commission Chairman Andrew Bjur. He said the plan turned out well.

"We spent a lot of time getting together,'' he said. "It started out by seeing that the community of Willmar has changed over the last 20 years, and we felt that it was time to change the comprehensive plan as well.''

Other developments include moving Willmar High School to the edge of town, the change in the former Regional Treatment Center from a care facility to the MinnWest Technology Campus, and expansion of the old airport into an industrial park.

Bjur said people who read the plan will have a better understanding of policies and intentions for certain land use goals.

The proposal was explained by City Planner Megan Sauer during a public meeting Wednesday evening at the Fire Station. Six members of the public, three City Council members, three Planning Commission members and one former Planning Commission member attended.

The introduction of the 85-page plan deals with its purpose and authority under state statutes and the City Charter.

Chapter 1 presents community profile, demographic and household projections. One observer called the plan "a gold mine of information.'' Chapter 2 discusses the natural environment, and Chapter 3 presents land use and economic profiles.

Many of the current and emerging issues stated in Chapter 4 were identified by citizens during the early planning process in 2006.

Those issues formed the framework for goals, policies and objectives in Chapter 5. Some issues could be placed in more than one topic. The Planning Commission focused on nine areas: economic growth; public utilities; transportation; natural resources and environmental quality; parks and open space; residential and social development; historic preservation and aesthetics; downtown development; and intergovernmental cooperation and citizen participation.

Sauer called Chapter 5 the "meat'' of the plan. Each area has a goal, objectives and policies. Some goals and policies are a continuation of previous goals and policies, Sauer said.

In the area of economic growth, the plan supports an economically sustainable community offering a diverse set of services, goods and employment opportunities.

One objective is to work with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission on business retention and expansion activities. One policy, among 26, is to encourage full development of industrial and commercial land.

The goal for public utilities is to make a full range of utilities available, with the objective of making utilities affordable to residents and businesses, and endorsing new technology, such as generating electricity with wind or burning corn cobs, said Sauer.

The plan supports providing new parks and open space as part of the residential development process, and dedicating park and open areas in new subdivisions, when feasible.

Under downtown development, the plan suggests maintaining and enhancing downtown for business and residential uses, and supporting the Design Center on downtown improvements.

Willmar resident John Sullivan praised the proposed plan.

"I've been involved in this whole situation for about three years. I'm glad the plan was completed. I think they did a beautiful job,'' he said.

"The biggest thing we need to do, after this is adopted, is the zoning ordinance needs to be gone through with a fine tooth comb. That hasn't been revised since 1994,'' Sullivan said.

Merle Berkeland, retired city fire marshal who's familiar with much of the city's structure, said taking public comments is important. He said a lot of work went into the plan.

"Obviously, there's going to be a lot of things the economy is going to dictate that is going to affect how these things develop. But you've got to have a plan so that it goes smoothly when you do it,'' he said.

Two members of the Willmar League of Women voters, Mary Lindstrom and Linda Hedlund, attended as observers.

Lindstrom said the League "has always supported the concept of comprehensive planning for the city and we have an interest in the issues that it addresses, whether it's water quality or educational opportunities, planned development, sustainability in agriculture, decent affordable housing for citizens -- all the issues that this plan addresses.''