by CHRIS ROGERS
Last year, ProGro Development’s proposal to build a 73-home subdivision near the edge of a bluff of Garvin Heights Road sparked a big debate over whether the city should relax its bluff protection ordinance to allow development or stand by its safeguards for fragile blufflands. That debate ended with the City Council overturning a variance — an exception from the normal rules — that another city board, the Board of Adjustment (BOA), had granted.
Last week, the BOA granted another bluff protection variance to a much smaller project — one single-family home — and some BOA members argued that the bluff protection ordinance’s most onerous requirements should not apply to such a small development.
Around a mile down the road from ProGro’s site, Lucas Malay owns what was once Sweetwater Subdivision. A relic of the city’s ambitious southward expansion before the 2008 housing-market crash, the property is an island of city of Winona territory surrounded by rural Wilson Township land. It was supposed to be a large new housing development, but demand dried up after the crash and the city never extended sewer and water utilities to the far-flung subdivision. Currently, the site is used as farmland. Malay plans to build a home for his family on it.
Because the site is within 200 feet of a bluff, the city’s bluff protection ordinance requires that hydrogeological and archeological studies be conducted prior to development to check for sinkholes and other karst features and for Native American remains, respectively. Malay said he received cost estimates for conducting those studies totaling over $30,000 — a major investment for a single-family home.
So, Malay applied for a variance to allow his home to be built without the normally required studies.
To invest $30,000 in studying the site of a single home, BOA member Tim Buegge said, “That’s a tough financial risk to put out there and not even know what it’s going to come back as, good or bad.”
Responding to a question, Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa noted that the ProGro subdivision proposal had also been required to complete hydrogeological and archeological studies.
“That was 73 units, though. That’s huge,” BOA Chair Chris Sanchez noted. “Is there nothing in there about how many buildings? There’s no trigger? It’s one or a million?”
There is no threshold in the ordinance for what size of development requires such studies. “It says any land disturbance requires these studies,” Espinosa answered Sanchez.
“I just think these studies, they prohibit somebody from building a house for themselves — just one house,” BOA member Jim Murphy stated.
Sanchez argued some aspects of the bluff protection ordinance, such as this one, should be reconsidered. “There’s got to be difference between 73 houses and one house,” he stated.
Most BOA member stated that the only risk to groundwater from the new house would be a septic system, but any new septic tank would have to go through a state certification process to check for karst features anyway. Malay noted that, although it doesn’t rule out the possibility of Native American artifacts existing on the site, the land has been tilled for farming for years.
No one spoke against the petition at a public hearing.
The BOA voted 6-1 to approve the variance. BOA member David Kouba cast the only vote against granting the variance, saying, “I don’t see a reason at this time we should go against the ordinance.” He added, “In going against the bluffland protection ordinance, you’re opening up a can of worms.”
The BOA’s decision is final unless appealed to the City Council.
City staff said a revised version of ProGro’s proposed subdivision will be considered by the city’s Planning Commission later this month.