by CHRIS ROGERS
After initially claiming that a proposed new subdivision was exempt from the city’s bluff protection rules, Winona city staff backtracked last month and required the developer to go through the normal procedure for seeking exceptions to city zoning rules. The Winona Board of Adjustment (BOA) considered the developers’ petition last week and granted the company permission to build a road on a bluff and build 26 homes on the edge of a bluff.
ProGro Leasing — whose investors include Knitcraft founder Bernhard Brenner — has proposed a 73-home subdivision on Garvin Heights Road just south of the Meadows Subdivision and Buck Ridge Drive.
Normally, city rules require buildings to be at least 50 feet away from the edge of a bluff, and normally roads and utilities are not allowed to be constructed on bluffs. However, ProGro Leasing received variances from the BOA that allow numerous homes to built within 10 feet of a bluff and allow an access road and sewer and water utilities for the subdivision to be built across a portion of a bluff.
Earlier this summer, Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa had claimed that ProGro Leasing’s subdivision was a “cluster development” and therefore, under the zoning code, was exempt from the bluff land protection rules. However, Espinosa’s assertion came under fire from Planning Commission members who argued in June the subdivision was clearly not a cluster development and raised concerns about waiving bluff land protection rules. Also in June, the Winona Post reported that, contrary to Espinosa’s assertion, the zoning ordinance does not exempt cluster developments from bluff setbacks. At the end of July, Espinosa informed the Planning Commission that ProGro Leasing would go through the normal process: seeking a variance from the bluff land protection rules. “I talked to the city attorney about it and he said, ‘Yeah, because [the ordinance] doesn’t specifically say that [cluster developments are exempt], they should get variances for it,’” Espinosa explained.
Variances are exceptions from normal zoning rules. Considering petitions for variances is the BOA’s primary function.
Johnson & Scofield Surveyor Brian Wodele spoke on behalf of ProGro Leasing at the BOA meeting. He explained the need for the variances: “Once you take into account all of the setbacks, it leaves very little buildable space.” He added, “With this variance, it will allow us to create more lots for the subdivision.”
The subdivision could have met the bluff land protection requirements without variances by significantly reducing the number of home lots.
To get a variance, an application is supposed to meet several criteria, including that it is “in harmony with the purpose and intent of the ordinance.” In other words, a variance is meant to bend a certain rule to allow reasonable flexibility, but it’s supposed to stay true to the spirit and the purpose of the rule that it is bending.
Two of the main purposes of the bluff land protection ordinance are to protect against erosion and runoff and to prevent new bluff top developments that can be seen from afar, such as the homes on the bluff overlooking Lake Winona that can be seen from Lake Park.
In its decision to approve variances for ProGro Leasing, the BOA cited a viewshed analysis that found that the new homes would not be visible from Highway 43, the nearest public road to the bluff’s bottom. BOA member Jon Krofchalk also argued that, because part of the subdivision would be built on land that is currently tilled for row crops, the subdivision would actually reduce erosion and runoff.
The subdivision will create impervious surfaces — roads, driveways, and rooftops — that produce runoff because water can’t soak into the ground. However, it will also include some perennial vegetation — grass and trees — that do soak up water.
Currently, the subdivision is partly covered by row crops — meaning there is not year-round vegetation to soak up rainwater — and partly covered by pastureland, where there is perennial vegetation.
Krofchalk argued that by eliminating the row crops, the subdivision would reduce runoff despite the addition of impervious surfaces.
Additionally, as required by state law, ProGro Leasing will build stormwater retention ponds meant to capture runoff from the subdivision. The company proposed building those ponds on the bluff.
Referring to both the elimination of row crops and the addition of stormwater ponds, Krofchalk said, “If it’s done right, if it’s engineered properly, it will in fact actually be better because you’re going to have grasses rather than tilled soil.” Krofchalk’s fellow BOA members agreed.
Another criterion for variances is that they be in harmony with the city’s comprehensive plan. Winona’s 2007 comprehensive plan says a lot of things, from laying out a vision for southward expansion of the city to protecting natural resources; however, the BOA focused on the comprehensive plan’s calls for housing and the city’s 2016 housing study.
That housing study found that the city needs hundreds of new housing units over the next 10 years, Krofchalk noted. “There aren’t too many lots left down in the island, and the only place we have any potential for growth is up here,” he said, referring to the Garvin Heights area.
The 2016 housing study recommended that the city needs hundreds more housing units of virtually all kinds except for lots for new home construction — the kind of housing this subdivision would provide. The study concluded that Winona has an ample supply of empty lots for new construction. However, Krofchalk and some other members of the city’s Housing Task Force said that conclusion was flawed because, they stated, some of the vacant lots in Winona are too steep to build on or are overpriced.
This is not a far-flung new subdivision; it is the next logical place for Winona’s expansion, Krofchalk continued. “We’re not going out a mile or two. We’re right next door to things that are already platted and subdivided … So it makes sense to do this in my mind,” he said.
The BOA voted unanimously last Wednesday to approve variances for ProGro Leasing’s subdivision. Up to 10 days after that vote, citizens may appeal the BOA decision to the City Council by paying a $215 fee.
The proposed subdivision still needs other approvals from city hall, including its preliminary plat — or the layout of the subdivision — which Espinosa expects the Planning Commission will review next month.