Facing criticism over its handling of the development proposal for Mississippi Dunes, the City of Cottage Grove used its December Council update on YouTube in a bid to educate its local citizens and others on just what the city can and can’t do legally with regard to a development proposal it receives.
Posted December 9 and enjoying 62 views as of the end of the month, Council member Steve Dennis sat down with City Attorney Kori Land in the St. Croix Room at City Hall to talk development rules and the city.
“Cottage Grove is a vibrant and growing community, and you can see this virtually anywhere,” Dennis shares in the December update. “Whether in our industrial business park, retail and commercial centers, or new residential housing developments, Cottage Grove is a place that people where people want to live and do business.”
The good news from this, Dennis reported, was a growing tax base leading to individual residents paying a smaller portion of the overall tax cost of running the city. “This aids us in delivering the tremendous level of service to our residents that people have come to expect,” he says. With growth in the city being market-driven, Dennis said that “many property owners are taking advantage of current conditions by selling to developers.”
“These are private sector deals that are conducted between willing sellers and willing buyers,” Dennis says, and as such are “conducted independent from the city.”
The city does not recruit for these deals, Dennis states, leading to the next part of the Council update.
“Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the development process, which is legally complex, but from a city’s perspective is relatively simple. In essence, when a residential or commercial developer with a legal property owner, the city staff, volunteer commissioners, and city council members are required to work within the confines of law to address the process,” Dennis says, then introducing city attorney Kori Land, who took the next portion of the update.
“That’s an interesting question, thanks for that,” Land says when Dennis asks about the city’s role and what level of discretion it had in the process. Land then goes on to say a deal between landowner and developer is a private contract.
“The City is not a party to that and can’t interfere with that contract,” she says. “What typically happens in those purchase agreements though, is that a developer will have what’s called contingency, where the developer must receive certain entitlements before they move forward to closing on the property,” she said of the site acquisition process by developers. “And that’s where the city gets involved,” she says. Dennis next has a question for Land.
“What happens when a proposal come forward that doesn’t meet the zoning or land use requirements?” Dennis asks. Land responded that the city applies its rules and encourages plan adjustments from the developer.
“And when it doesn’t, they try to encourage the developer, to come in with a plan that does,” she tells Dennis in the Council update. “If the developer needs a variance, they can apply for it,” Land says, clarifying that the developer isn’t entitled to one and had to meet a test by the city for this.
“And if the developer still insists on submitting an application without a variance and that doesn’t meet the code, then they run the risk of it being denied,” Land informs Dennis and the audience. Denying an application however, can’t be arbitrary on the city’s part.
“The City must have findings of fact for denial,” she says, giving as examples that the plan isn’t consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, zoning ordinance, or subdivision regulations put in place by the city.
“Or it will injure and cause detriment to surrounding properties or the community as a whole,” Land offers as another example.
“When the Council has to take the findings of fact into consideration, they must look at all the evidence that was presented,” she says, saying that this “can’t be based on speculation” or opposition to the application, but “must be based on fact.” Prompted by Dennis, Land then touches on land use law related to the approval process.
“Land use law is very complicated,” the city attorney notes, “potentially fraught with minefields that we need to make sure the city avoids.” With property rights protected by both the U.S. Constitution and Minnesota State Constitution, property owners look to the pre-established rules set by the city to see how they might develop a property.
“Then the city is obligated to follow those rules,” she said. “Failure of the city to do exactly what they need to do according to their code or according to their ordinances, could subject the city to legal ramifications or to liability from a property owner,” she says. Council member Dennis then asks his next question of Land.
“How can adjacent property owners provide input throughout the process?” he asks.
“The ordinances require and state law actually requires a public hearing,” Land responds, the video them shifting to a Plan Commission meeting with Commissioner Frazier in the chair. “That’s where all the evidence can be presented, where the Council can actually hear what they need to hear to make an informed decision.” With hearing notices mailed to property owners within 500 feet of the application along with posting in the city’s official newspaper (currently the Pioneer Press), Land said that speculation wasn’t a good basis for the Council to rely on.
“But fact is,” she tells Dennis of a basis for city action on an application, going on to say that “we can always impose reasonable conditions on the planning application.”
“And a lot of that information comes out from those public hearings,” she says. Dennis then thanks Land and for appearing and sums up the Council update.
“The process under which members of the Planning Commission, Economic Development Authority, and City Council must work are guided by state law and the city’s zoning requirements, which are further approved by the Metropolitan Council,” he says. “We hope this conversation provides some clarity around the legal process as it relates to residential and commercial development. For Council update, I’m City Council member Steve Dennis.”