Willmar officials discuss process for issuing conditional use permits

WILLMAR -- The process for how the city of Willmar makes zoning decisions and approves or denies conditional use permits was discussed Wednesday during a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission.

WILLMAR -- The process for how the city of Willmar makes zoning decisions and approves or denies conditional use permits was discussed Wednesday during a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission.

No action was taken to make any changes in the current system, but Mayor Les Heitke said "My hunch is, they'll think about it."

The primary issue is whether the City Council, or the Planning Commission, should be the final authority when a conditional use permit is denied.

When conditional use permits are requested, the Planning Commission reviews the application, views the property, holds a public hearing and considers staff recommendations before making a decision that's forwarded to the City Council for final action.

Currently, the City Council can nix a permit that the Planning Commission has approved, but the council cannot approve a conditional use permit the Planning Commission has denied.


That system was questioned by some council members when the Planning Commission denied a permit for a biomass pelletizing plant in May. Unhappy with that vote, the council returned the issue to the Planning Commission for another review, but the commission again denied the permit in June.

Wednesday was the first time the two bodies had met together to discuss their different duties when it comes to land-use decisions.

In response to a question about the history of the current system, which has been in place since 1975, City Administrator Michael Schmit said it was a way to "streamline" the City Council's work and meetings, which often ran "into the wee hours of the morning" years ago.

Heitke said a citizens' board can "do a better job" of studying the "complex" and time-consuming planning and zoning applications, which allows the City Council to focus on setting policy.

Having non-elected citizens make land-use decisions can also remove politics from the process, Heitke said.

Councilman Steve Gardner said the Planning Commission's work is "extremely valuable," but the council should "be the final arbiter" on zoning issues.

Jay Lawton, a member of the Planning Commission, said if his role is reduced only to an advisory position, he wouldn't want to be on the commission. The city has "30 years of history" with a system that "works pretty well," Lawton said.

Planning Commission member Fernando Alvarado said that just because the members aren't elected "doesn't make us less qualified to make a decision that's best for Willmar."


Councilman Doug Reese spoke in favor of retaining the current system.

Allowing the Planning Commission to have final authority on conditional use permits may make Willmar unique.

"Most City Councils reserve that right to themselves," Schmit said, with planning commissioners serving in an advisory role.

But city planning director Bruce Peterson said zoning administrators from others cities are "somewhat envious" of the way it's done in Willmar.

In a written opinion, City Attorney Richard Ronning said if the City Council wants to have final authority to issue or deny conditional use permits, then the council should conduct the public hearings and receive evidence both for and against the permits.

Ronning said it wouldn't be practical for the Planning Commission to take testimony and hear evidence, and then turn over the decision-making authority to the City Council, which hadn't heard the testimony or evidence.

Doing so could set the council up for litigation because it would be "virtually impossible" for the council to make conclusions that would hold up in court.

If the council "wants to become the issuing authority on conditional use permits," Ronning said, an amendment to the city's zoning ordinance would be required.


While the issue of which entity should have final authority was the premise for the discussion, whether the Planning Commission made the right or wrong decision on the biomass plant proposed by Earthtech Energy provided the undertow to the discussion.

Councilman Denis Anderson asked how a permit can be denied for an industry on land that's zoned as industrial. "I have a real problem with that," he said.

Anderson said it's not right for a conditional use permit to be denied when that use is allowed under the current zoning law.

Andrew Bjur, a member of the Planning Commission, said if that theory is applied, then the Planning Commission would just go "through the motions" of reviewing permit applications before automatically approving them.

Councilman Jim Dokken said an individual shouldn't be able to build whatever he wants just because a site is zoned for that use. He said the zoning administrator and Planning Commission should provide direction on where certain businesses should be located. Dokken said the pellet plant should be built in the city's expanded industrial park.

Chairwoman of the Planning Commission Audrey Nelson said she has not spent one moment wondering if the commission made the wrong decision in denying the permit for the plant.

The owners of Earthtech have appealed the denial of their permit to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, which will meet Monday.

If the application is denied there, Earthtech's next option to pursue the permit would be to go to court.


Nelson said that's how the system is supposed to work.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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