by Dennis Dalman
On a 3-2 vote, the Sartell City Council nixed a variance request by “Legends of Heritage Place” because of concerns about intrusion in a wetlands area.
The decision happened at the March 10 council meeting.
Members Steve Hennes and Sarah Jane Nicoll voted for the variance; members Amy Braig-Lindstrom, David Peterson and Mayor Joe Perske voted against it.
“Legends” had requested a variance from the city’s wetlands ordinance in order to construct a building that would join the two buildings currently there. The new building would include 24 more residential units and new amenities. It would also be a connection for the two buildings that are now separated.
“Legends” is a residential complex that includes units for people suffering from memory loss. It includes a memory-care unit, an assisted-living unit and an independent-living unit – two home-like buildings located at 673 Brianna Drive.
Sartell City Planner Anita Rasmussen noted the request had been unanimously approved for recommendation to the council by the city’s planning commission. The “Legends” variance request was asking for a building setback of 20 feet with a buffer zone of four feet. What is normally required under city regulations is a setback of 20 feet with a buffer of 10 feet, Rasmussen noted. She told the council the wetlands at that location had expanded in recent years.
The request, Rasmussen said, is unique to that property, and the dilemma was not caused by the owners, she added. A unique problem is grounds for granting a variance.
Rasmussen said city staff and the planning commission recommend granting the variance with several spelled-out conditions. She also noted the city had met with the applicants and a hydrologist and every effort was made to resolve the problem. The variance, she added, is the only way the proposed project could be realized.
But, after Rasmussen’s presentation, it soon became apparent three council members had serious reservations about the request. All three said they are not at all opposed to “Legends” wanting to improve the facility, but they cannot disregard the wetlands issue.
Braig-Lindstrom said construction of the two current buildings must surely have been a cause for the wetlands expanding in that area. Peterson said he couldn’t find anything “unique” about the property that would necessarily warrant a variance. Perske said there ought to be some kind of wetlands mitigation for the project, that there is a large amount of impervious surface in that area and that this might be a case of putting “too many pounds of potatoes in a smaller package.” Perske also said he is worried granting a variance in this case could set a bad precedent. The council, he added, has talked for so long about wetlands, green spaces and preservations of areas that why should the council now want to abandon those standards?
Rasmussen said the request will not increase or decrease the size of the wetland there.
City Engineer Mike Nielson told the council the buffer solution proposed would suffice, above and beyond, most requirements as called for in the city’s wetlands ordinance.
City Administrator Mary Degiovanni said a lot of detailed work had gone into the city staff working out a variance solution with “Legends” and the council should consider taking all of the detailed work into consideration.
Hennes and Nicoll strongly disagreed with their three fellow council members. Nicoll challenged Braig-Lindstrom’s contention that building on that site was the cause of the increased size of the wetlands. There is no proof for that, she said. Nicoll also said the staff presented the request with a lot of good reasons for granting it, the planning commission voted 4-0 to recommend council approval and “Legends’” suggestion to add 650 square feet of additional buffer zone on another part of the property (by taking out one parking lot) is also more than adequate.
“I’m comfortable with it,” Nicoll said.
Hennes called the plan a “great addition to a wonderful complex.” It’s needed, he said, adding “and not just for this community. It’s a good plan, and it’s good for Sartell.” Hennes also said it would be “a small change for a major expansion” for a facility the city is fortunate to have here.
Braig-Lindstrom said “Legends” could find a way to accomplish their proposed project without the particular plan presented to the council.
After the long, involved discussion, the council voted to deny the request.