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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Variance Repair Imperiled in the Legislature

An issue I'm keeping an eye on at the legislature this session is an bill to amend the statute relating to municipal variances.  A Minnesota Supreme Court decision last year overturned the standards that had been used for decades in deciding whether or not a variance should be granted by a city; their decision, saying that a variance was permitted only if no reasonable use of the property was possible without it, made the number of situations where a variance could be granted vanishingly small.

It seemed like a no-brainer to pass a bill that basically restored city variance authority to where it was before the Krummenacher decision.  However, while it seemed that there was support across the board from cities and property and business interests at the outset, the business groups, led by car dealerships, have apparently decided that the proposed bill is not to their liking after all, as an update from the League of Minnesota Cities reports.  Apparently mention of the "environment" is what first upset the car dealers.  They now want "all references to public health, safety, and welfare completely removed and also wanted existing county statutes amended to remove 'public interest' as a criteria for imposing conditions on variances."

I can't imagine that the businesses want the status quo, where variances are near to impossible; but it seems like they see an opportunity to use this legislation as a means to undermine the ability of cities to protect public health, safety, and the environment through conditions attached to variances.  As important as it is to fix variance law, there are some ways to work around it (for example, planned unit developments), at least in some situations (though rarely for individual homeowners, I think).  I would rather see no fix to variances than a supposed fix that, in effect, forces cities to simply exempt businesses from their zoning rules and other land-use regulations whenever they apply for a variance.

As I contemplate the Maplewood situations where I am most concerned to restore sensible variance authority, the environment is very much a part of it.  A good example is the new Goodwill location on White Bear Avenue, where we approved a wetland buffer variance last year not long before the Krummenacher decision.  In that case an existing use of the property had no buffer to speak of by a stream; the proposed redevelopment of the site will improve stormwater runoff management and create some buffer where there has been none.  Obviously the current existing legal nonconforming use can continue without a variance (a reasonable use) -- so I believe that if we had been deciding post-Krummenacher, we would have had to deny the variance.  This would have done no favor for the property owner and businesses (who will benefit from the redevelopment of the site), nor for the environment (which, with a variance, is getting some improvement, even if not exactly what is defined in our current ordinances).  We need the ability to grant case-by-case flexibility, especially in redevelopment scenarios like this, but we still need to serve the intent behind the ordinances from which an applicant is seeking a variance and thus need to ability to attach reasonable conditions for that purpose.

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