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Northeast Willmar apartment complex moves forward with Planning Commission approval of plat and permit

Despite concerns raised by numerous residents, the Willmar Planning Commission at its meeting Wednesday approved the preliminary and final plat for development of an apartment complex on Lakeland Drive Northeast, as well as a conditional use permit.

Agricultural land shown in summer 2022 east of Lakeland Drive Northeast in Willmar between the Trentwood development and the mobile home park located on the corner of Lakeland Drive Northeast and Civic Center Drive. An apartment complex is being planned for the location.
A public hearing will take place Sept. 19 during the Willmar City Council meeting for rezoning land to high-density residential in order to allow the construction of a 216-unit apartment complex across three 72-unit buildings. The land is east of Lakeland Drive Northeast between the Trentwood development and the mobile home park located on the corner of Lakeland Drive Northeast and Civic Center Drive.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR — Despite numerous complaints from local residents, a proposed new apartment complex has surmounted its next hurdle in becoming a reality.

The Willmar Planning Commission at its Wednesday meeting approved a conditional use permit, as well as the preliminary and final plat for the development.

The proposed Unique Opportunities apartment complex, which is proposed to be 216 units across three 72-unit buildings, will be located between the Trentwood development and the mobile home park on Lakeland Drive Northeast.

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A public hearing regarding a land sale for a tiny home development and a public hearing for the rezoning of property surrounding the Uptown Willmar mall will take place during the Monday, Aug. 15, meeting of the Willmar City Council.

The Planning Commission at a previous meeting approved the rezoning of the parcel to high-density residential from agricultural. A public hearing regarding the rezoning of the land will take place during the Sept. 19 Willmar City Council meeting.

A public hearing will also take place at that meeting regarding creating a tax increment financing district to help finance the development.

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The preliminary and final plat and the conditional use permit will also come before the council for approval, but those actions have not yet been scheduled.

Local residents have been vocal with their concerns about the development, sharing them at the Aug. 3 Planning Commission meeting, the Aug. 15 City Council meeting, a meeting between the developer and residents Sept. 2, and again at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

Their main concerns include the increased traffic that will be caused in the area by the addition of 216 housing units, the additional wear and tear on the road, water runoff from the development, the effect the development will have on their property values, and the reduced privacy of having an apartment complex in their backyard.

The preliminary and final plat were approved unanimously with the conditions that the final plat includes the easement needed by Willmar Municipal Utilities for electricity and the easement needed by the city engineer for a stormwater pond.

Preliminary plat for Unique Opportunities Lakeland 2022
The preliminary and final plat of the proposed Unique Opportunities apartment complex in northeast Willmar shows how the development will be laid out on the land located between the Trentwood development and the mobile home park on Lakeland Drive Northeast. The plat and a conditional use permit were approved by the Willmar Planning Commission at Wednesday's meeting, despite concerns raised by numerous local residents.
Contributed / Willmar Planning and Development Department

Before addressing the conditional use permit, Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker explained the criteria for a conditional use permit.

“Conditional use permits are uses that the community would like to allow with certain conditions, and those conditions are spelled out,” Walker said, noting it is not added at the whim of residents or city staff.

“ ... Those conditions are placed upon the development to ensure the development is sound development. They are not conditions placed upon a development to make the development unviable.”

He listed the seven criteria for conditional use permits:

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  • That the conditional use, with such conditions as the commission shall determine and attach, conforms to the purpose and intent of this ordinance, and is in conformity with the comprehensive land use plan of the city.
  • That there was no factual demonstration of a substantial/appreciable negative impact on values to properties in the neighborhood from the proposed conditional use.
  • The conditional use will not result in the destruction, loss or damage of a natural,  scenic or historic feature of major importance to the community.
  • That the conditional use will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district as zoned.
  • That adequate utilities, access roads, stormwater management, and other necessary facilities have been, or are being, provided.
  • That adequate measures have been, or will be, taken to provide ingress and egress in such a manner as to minimize traffic congestion and maximize public safety in the public streets.
  • The conditional use will be designed, constructed, operated and maintained in a manner that is compatible in appearance with the existing or intended character of the surrounding area/neighborhood.

Unique Opportunities partner Troy Johnson also addressed the Planning Commission and those in attendance.
The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission reached out to Unique Opportunities several years ago to help address the housing needs of the community.

“We were really excited to partner with Willmar,” Johnson said, noting they started the Unique Opportunities apartment complex on 30th Street Northwest a year later. The fourth building there is nearly complete, and the complex has “been received extremely well by the community.”

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“We’re trying to do our best to create a really good environment for quality people moving to town, trying to help solve these housing needs that are really all over the place, especially here, because you guys have done a fantastic job creating an environment where businesses want to come and create opportunities for people to have jobs,” Johnson said, noting they have been working diligently with city staff to address and resolve any concerns that have arisen.

The conditional use permit was approved with conditions in a split 5-2 vote, with commissioners Jonathan Marchand, Cletus Frank, Stephanie Carlson, Jasmine Miller and Steve Dresler voting in favor, and commissioners Stacy Holwerda and Jeff Kempling voting against the permit

Many of the conditions attached to the permit should help to alleviate the concerns of the local residents. Those conditions include the completion of a traffic study to gauge how the new complex will affect traffic and if road changes are needed to ensure safety; following all requirements and recommendations from the city engineer, Willmar Municipal Utilities and the fire chief; placing trees and fencing to screen the property from other properties; and, lighting in the parking lot that does not infringe on neighboring properties.

City engineer Jared Voge explained to those in attendance that water runoff is not allowed to increase with any type of development, and that is why stormwater retention ponds are required. Sometimes, development improves issues with stormwater due to the requirements to contain it when a new development is built.

One issue that caused quite a kerfuffle at the meeting was when it was noted that the site plans have a 64.5-foot setback from property lines to the south, which angered residents who stated that Sam Herzog, Johnson's partner in Unique Opportunities, has consistently stated it would be 100 feet.

Johnson attempted to assure the residents that if that is what Herzog said, that the site plan may not have been updated to show it.

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According to city ordinance, only a 40-foot setback is required, Walker noted.

“ ... We always want to keep things as far away from the property line as we can,” Johnson said. “We basically use the city requirements as a guideline and then try to get better from there.”

Dresler explained the Planning Commission’s legal limitations when it comes to setting and enforcing things such as setbacks.

“Just so the audience knows, to the best of my understanding, as a planning commission, if they’re meeting the city ordinances and requirements, we can’t tell them differently,” he said. “We can’t tell them to do a 100-foot setback. We don’t have the legal right to do that.”

“I understand your frustration about what was said and what they are showing,” he continued. “As the gentleman here said, I don’t know what their final one is going to be, but we are also limited by what city ordinances are.”

He told those in attendance that if they wished to change city ordinance, they would have to approach city staff and City Council to make those changes.

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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