John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Monastery Meeting

This past Monday, the theater in the Maplewood Community Center was overflowing with citizens who turned out for this special meeting of the city council, to express both support and concerns about the proposed Planned Unit Development on the site of St. Paul's Monastery.

I offered a couple of lines of thought, both rooted in my perspective as a businessman. First, I wanted to focus attention on the fact that we were talking about the Benedictine sisters' private land. The proposed development is in harmony both with existing zoning and with the city's comprehensive land use plan. Thus, it seems to me that the hurdle is set very high, in terms of the public interest that must be served in order to outweigh the private landowners' property rights. Second, I wanted to speak to the importance of affordable housing as a public good, in helping working families better their own situation and become more secure and self-sufficient, which benefits all of us as taxpayers and fellow citizens. When non-profit organizations are stepping forward to provide this affordable housing in our community, it's an opportunity we should not miss.

Because one of the five members of the city council was absent from the meeting on account of illness, the vote was tabled until tomorrow night's regular council meeting.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Freeway TV in Maplewood

Tonight I attended the meeting of Maplewood's Community Design Review Board. There were detailed discussions about plans to build a Costco, and to expand the Corner Kick Soccer Center. What stood out to me most, however, was a question raised by vice chair Matt Ledvina late in the meeting: What's up with the big LED billboard along I-494 in south Maplewood?

The story goes something like this: Clear Channel Communications applied for a permit to repair an old billboard along the freeway, and were granted it. However, instead of the simple repairs expected, the old billboard was replaced with a huge light-emitting diode (LED) screen, essentially a gigantic (175 square feet) flat screen television, which can have changing advertisements, animation, flashing images, etc.

They did the same thing in numerous metro suburbs, resulting in quite an outcry, legal actions, and moratoria. Neighbors in many communities object to the bright, shifting displays, and some in law enforcement are concerned about safety and driver distraction on our high-speed roads. Minnetonka disconnected the power to the two LED billboards in their city, and a court upheld their right to do so.

In the case of Maplewood, it seems to be a blatant violation of our existing billboard ordinance, which like Minnetonka's prohibits flashing signs. The city asked Clear Channel to apply for a variance. Clear Channel did not wish to do so, explaining that a variance would require a demonstration of unique hardship, which they did not believe they could provide. So the city gave them an alternative: this particular billboard already had some kind of special treatment in terms of setback or something, so Clear Channel could apply for a conditional use permit, and treat this as a modification of an existing special arrangement rather than a brand new variance.

According to a Lillie Papers article, Clear Channel was given February 27th as a deadline to apply for a variance in Maplewood. Perhaps they were given another deadline for a CUP application. In any case, the deadlines have come and gone, and no application has been submitted.

CDRB Chair Linda Olsen was enraged as she heard about how Clear Channel not only ignored city ordinance in the first place, but has disregarded the city's request for a CUP application, even as the city has bent over backwards to give them a chance to explain themselves and make their case for why they should be given an exception from city codes. The board discussed whether the city should even cut the sign's power, as Minnetonka has done.

Ledvina offered a motion requesting that the city council direct staff to resolve this matter quickly, which the board unanimously approved.

Our city manager, Mr. Copeland, is on the record saying "the benefits of the technology outweighed the initial lack of information." I hope he doesn't feel the benefits of the technology mean that Maplewood should just let it go when a big corporation not only flouts our ordinances, but turns up its nose when we go the extra mile to try and work with them and still maintain the integrity of the law. If Mr. Copeland thinks our billboard ordinance is outdated, he should argue his case to the city council to change it.

In the meantime, I think we may have an assignment for our new code enforcement officer.

Edit, 5/9 12:31 PM: Maplewood Voices found another good link to a Maplewood Review article about the billboard.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

New Notes Posted

For your reading enjoyment, three new sets of John's notes have just been posted to the site:

Workshop: Easements 04-09-97
Workshop: PCSC Interviews 04-09-07
Environmental Commission 05-01-07

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

St Paul's Monastery Public Meeting

Next Monday, May 7th, there will be a special public meeting at the Maplewood Community Center, 7 PM, on the topic of the proposed developments at St. Paul's Monastery. The Benedictine sisters who call the Monastery home have found that it's more space than they need, so they propose building a new and smaller home for themselves; turning the existing building into a facility for the Tubman Family Alliance; and using another parcel of land for an affordable housing development in collaboration with Common Bond Communities. The plan requires approval from the Maplewood City Council.

I encountered five sisters from the monastery when they attended the Mayor's Forum at the start of April, where they had ready answers for all of the questions posed to them by fellow Maplewood residents, and additional information as well. Some of the information was surprising -- for example, the affordable housing income limit is somewhere around $43,000, if memory serves. Some citizens at the forum remarked in some amazement that they themselves could qualify to live there.

I know some neighbors have concerns about the development, about the effect on traffic for example, but what I've heard of the plan so far has made a positive impression on me. I admit I've always had a soft spot for Benedictine nuns (going back to when I was a little kid running around the halls of St. Scholastica, the Benedictine college where my dad is still an ethics professor, named after St. Benedict's twin sister). Sometimes people have an idea of the religious as being removed from the world in a kind of state of abstraction and disembodied prayer. In truth, these women have devoted themselves to bettering the world we live in, not just the world that may come hereafter; projects like this serve the living needs of the community, and thereby further the spiritual calling of the sisters as well.

If you have doubts about this project, you should attend in order to voice those doubts and see if they can be put to rest. (In fact, without waiting for the meeting, you might find that the monastery's web site already has the answers to your questions under the "Resources About the Planned Unit Development" section on its front page.) If the project sounds like a good idea, you should still attend, to learn more and to be visible in your support of the sisters' good works.

I plan to be there, and I hope you will be too.

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