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Zoning rules changed in BE

By Staff | Oct 30, 2011

David Frundt

In the past, if a Blue Earth resident wanted to build something that didn’t conform to the local zoning ordinance, there was an easy solution.

They applied for a variance to the ordinance, paid a fee, and were usually granted the variance by the planning and zoning commission.

Not so any more.

At a special two-hour work session last Monday night, the Blue Earth City Council learned that a new zoning ordinance will be much tougher on issuing variances, among other things.

“The State Supreme Court came down with a ruling over a year ago,” City Attorney David Frundt told the council. “It dealt with how variances can be issued.”

Now the State of Minnesota has decreed cities must start following this ruling as of Aug. 1.

“We have had to amend our zoning ordinance because of this,” Frundt says. “It redefines what a variance is and how and when it can be issued.”

The intent, Frundt says, is that variances will be issued only under very unusual circumstances, and that it will be done very rarely.

Mayor Rob Hammond, Jr., admitted that in the past variances have been routinely issued in Blue Earth. Frundt says that is not unusual in small towns in Minnesota.

“I suspect that many variances have been issued in small towns,” he says, “as opposed to suburbs and larger cities.”

City Administrator Kathy Bailey says she did some research and learned that the city of Mankato did not issue one variance in all of last year.

“It has to be a unique and rare circumstance for a variance to be issued,” she says. “In the past citizens have just assumed they would get a variance automatically.”

In fact, two citizens had recently paid the fee and had been issued variances by the planning and zoning commission – which were later rescinded when the council learned it could no longer be done, according to the state mandates.

“People are reluctant to hear that and find out they can’t do what they want to do, when their neighbors were allowed to do it in the past,” Bailey says.

Frundt confirmed that what was has been done in the past is ‘grandfathered in.’

“We can’t undo what has been done,” he says. “However, we have to move forward with this new ordinance.”

The council agreed that the fees charged to those who were seeking variances and could not get them should be refunded.

The variances issued in the past have had to do with set backs from property lines and often had to do with building a two car garage to replace a single stall garage.

Frundt says citizens will have to conform to the zoning ordinance rules, since variances will only be issued under very unusual circumstances.

The new ordinance defines set backs as being 20 feet back of the street right-of-way for a front yard, and five feet from the property line for a garage in a back yard, or 20 feet from an alley. Side yard set backs vary according to the height of a house.

It also defines a minimum lot size as 50 feet by 60 feet in a standard residential area.

In new developments, minimum lot sizes are increased to 8,500 square feet, or 75 feet minimum front and 100 feet minimum depth.

The council found one issue in the proposed new zoning ordinance which caused much discussion.

While most of the sections in the ordinance were either being deleted or amended, one section was added ­- dealing with garages.

The section reads that no private garage can exceed 1,024 square feet and no one side of the garage can be longer than 36 feet.

Councilman Rick Scholtes argued that if one side can be 36 feet long, why not have both sides at 36 feet.

“As long as it will fit in the set back requirements of the property, why not?” he asks.

That would make the maximum size of a new garage 1,296 square feet, instead of the proposed 1,024 square feet.

Councilman John Gartzke wanted another subsection added to the garage rules.

“I think we need something in there saying what material garages can be constructed from,” Gartzke says. “We can’t have these steel pole sheds built in the city and call it a garage.”

The new zoning ordinance is a work in progress, Frundt says. Still to be looked at are zoning regulations for the downtown area.

“Right now it would be difficult for a new business building to be constructed in our downtown,” Bailey says. “We need to redo the rules for Main Street completely.”