Council to consider changes to conditional use permits

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council will take public comments during a hearing Tuesday night on proposed changes to the standards used for approving conditional use permits. The council will take comments in the chambers at 7 p.m. in the Municipa...

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council will take public comments during a hearing Tuesday night on proposed changes to the standards used for approving conditional use permits. The council will take comments in the chambers at 7 p.m. in the Municipal Utilities Building, 700 Litchfield Ave. S.W.

The proposed changes in what are called "findings of fact'' are the result of a review by the Willmar Planning Commission and the council's Community Development Committee. The commission and the committee recommended the council set a hearing to consider amendments that would make changes to the findings of fact.

The City Council asked the Planning Commission and city staff to begin the process of reviewing and clarifying the findings after two contentious conditional use permit discussions came before the Planning Commission and the City Council.

The first was the biomass pelletizing plant proposed in 2007 by Earthtech Energy in northeast Willmar. The Planning Commission denied a conditional use permit requested by Earthtech to build the plant along Civic Center Drive.

The Planning Commission said the plant was inconsistent with the goals and policies of the comprehensive land use plan and would impede residential development. The commission's denial was overturned, however, by the Board of Zoning Appeals, which said Earthtech must comply with certain conditions.


Earthtech later withdrew development plans.

The second was the Westwind Estates Third Addition affordable housing project. The commission approved a conditional use permit that would allow the developer to sell twin homes. Owners of neighboring single-family homes said the project was not compatible with single-family homes and would reduce property values.

The Board of Zoning Appeals overturned the permit, but the permit was later withdrawn by the developer and was replaced with a twin-home rental project that didn't require a conditional use permit to build the twin homes.

According to the Minnesota Planning Association, a Planning Commission's decision on a conditional use permit must be based on facts submitted at a public hearing and recorded in the minutes. Facts are also included in staff reports, which should be made part of the minutes by reference.

"Planning Commissioners must always remember that any matter before them could be litigated,'' according to the Minnesota Planning Association handbook. "They must apply the facts of each agenda item to the applicable law, normally the standards in the ordinance.

"Based upon this application of facts to the law, the commission must find reasons or rationale upon which their decision to recommend approval or denial is based. These reasons or rationale are referred to as findings of fact,'' according to the handbook.

"There must be an adequate factual basis in the record to support the legal reasons for the decision,'' the handbook says. "Therefore, these findings must be clearly stated and recorded in the minutes in order to support the decision in the event that the action is legally challenged.''

Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services for the city, said the Planning Commission was directed to review, clarify and make the findings less ambiguous, more definitive and user-friendly. The Planning Commission approved the revised findings on Aug. 13 and forwarded the findings to the council for a hearing.


"The concern that we're trying to solve was coming up with a way to have factual information to make a judgment -- yes or no -- that it conforms with the city comprehensive plan,'' says Andrew Bjur, Planning Commission chairman. "We're trying to modify the existing language to speak clearly, saying yes this is approved, or no, it should not be approved.''

During its review, the Planning Commission studied findings-of-fact regulations used in seven other cities. Some were very specific and some were very generic, he said.

"We thought that we wanted to be very clear and spell out exactly what the fact that we were looking for was and so we can make a judgment one way or the other if the conditional use was applicable to that,'' said Bjur.

He said the commission modified language regarding property values to state that there must be a factual demonstration that property values will be impaired.

"The difficult thing always is at the meetings is people say that their property values will be affected, but they provide no expert testimony or no case studies showing that whatever the conditional use is affects their property value,'' said Bjur. "It's all basically their personal feelings at the time.''

That seemed to be the concern with Westwind, he said.

"The modification was basically to note that a factual demonstration has to be brought in front of us in order to make a judgment yes or no that it complies with the conditional use permit.''

In other business, the council will:


- Hold a hearing on special assessments for unpaid weed and grass mowing.

- Consider hike and bike trail resolutions.

- Receive the reports of the Finance Committee, Public Works/Safety Committee and Labor Relations Committee.

- Consider the 2009 preliminary tax levy.

- Consider providing irrigation at orange field at Swansson Field.

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