by CHRIS ROGERS
In the city of Winona’s first contentious public hearing held in cyberspace, some citizens were unable to comment because of their unfamiliarity with the software city staff have chosen to run public meetings.
The hearing was on a proposed senior housing cooperative in Pleasant Valley. Mankato, Minn.,-based Bradford Development has an overflowing waiting list at its Willow Brook Cooperative in Winona’s East Burns Valley, and it wants to build a four-story, 32-unit cooperatively owned senior housing complex on the edge of Winona in Pleasant Valley. Dubbed Cedar Brook Cooperative, the facility would sit partway up a hill, above several existing houses, across from Signatures and The Bridges Golf Course.
This would help fill Winona’s need for more senior housing, a Bradford representative and Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa noted. However, several neighbors were opposed to such a large, dense building in the middle of rural Pleasant Valley.
“[Willow Brook] has sold out and has about 48 people on a waiting list to purchase shares there,” Melissa Nelson of Bradford Development said. The people on that waiting list love the plan for Cedar Brook, especially its beautiful, rural location, she reported. With prices ranging from $108,000 to $154,000 to own a unit in the coop, it would also be relatively affordable, Nelson added.
This development is exactly the kind of senior housing Winona needs and should support, former Winona Housing Task Force Chair Jim Vrchota said during the public hearing.
“I think a four-story building in Pleasant Valley is not what the residents of Pleasant Valley would like to see,” neighbor Alison Plemmons said, describing what she would have said at the public hearing, had she been able to. “I didn’t [comment] because I didn’t know how,” she explained.
Plemmons called in to the city Planning Commission meeting held via Zoom. The software allows participates to join a virtual meeting from a computer or any telephone including landlines and non-smartphones. While its relative simplicity has made it popular, it’s still brand new technology for many Winonans and citizens’ ability to navigate it varies. In the virtual public meetings, citizens’ lines are muted by default, and to participate in a public hearing, citizens must press buttons on their computer or phone to unmute themselves and be heard: a microphone icon on computers and smartphone apps and *6 on a standard phone call. “I’m not familiar with Zoom at all, so I really didn’t know how to use it to be able to make any comments with that,” Plemmons explained.
Plemmons neighbor, Laurel Littrell, said she was only able to unmute her line because her 11-year-old son showed her how. “You could see in the corner, other people were trying to speak,” Litrell said of other neighbors who joined but were unable to unmute themselves.
City officials could also tell people were attempting to comment. “Mr. Heise, are you trying to speak? We can’t hear you,” Assistant City Planner Luke Sims said. They never did hear the man. “Did we lose him?” Planning Commission Chair Brian Buelow asked.
Buelow seemed to make good-faith attempts to allow people to speak, inviting public comments many times and waiting for responses. Silence ensued. Just as Buelow was about to close the hearing, Wilson Town Board Chair Leon Bowman cut in, “Hello, can anyone hear me?” He had initially joined the meeting from a computer, then realized it lacked a microphone. Bowman called in from a telephone and succeeded in making his message heard: the four-story residential complex does not fit in with the rural neighborhood and the city should not rush to annex this property in the middle of broader negotiations with the township.
“I’m a little worried that it looks like we’ve got a couple people who are still on line, including Mr. Heise and some other neighbors, who were apparently unable to speak because of our format,” Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge said. In interviews and subsequent meetings, City Council members Michelle Alexander and Paul Schollmeier and Winona County Board member Marcia Ward echoed those concerns over citizens’ inability to participate in the hearing. Alexander suggested the city encourage residents to submit comments in writing.
“We’re doing everything we can to provide notice and opportunity, which is what the statute requires,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said when asked if the city needed to change anything with its hearing format. “There were people who were able to navigate the system. We understand that some people were not able to, and had some concerns with that,” he stated. Going forward, Sarvi said the city would encourage citizens to submit comments via mail or email and to call in early to public meetings so they and city staff can test out the technology. “Other than that, I don’t know what else we can do,” Sarvi said. “These decisions have to continue to be made, and so, it’s legal and we’re going to press forward.”
Development endorsed on split vote
The proposed site of Cedar Brook Cooperative is owned by Mitch Bublitz and is currently outside Winona city limits. Before the development could go forward, it would have to be annexed by the city — a move the rural Wilson Township government opposes. The Winona City Council is slated to vote on Bradford and Bublitz’s annexation request on May 4.
Though it is not city territory yet, the Planning Commission was asked to change the city comprehensive plan’s future-land-use designation for the property. That is a necessary first step to rezoning the property to R-3, the city’s highest-density residential zone, which would allow a four-story, 32-unit condo building to be built. Nearby properties are zoned R-1 (low-density residential) or R-S (residential suburban), some of the city’s lowest-density zoning districts.
The city’s 2007 comprehensive plan lays out long-term goals for the sort of development that would be appropriate all across the city, from residential neighborhoods to industrial parks and even some Wilson Township land officials planned to annex someday, including part of Pleasant Valley. Currently, the comprehensive plan calls for Pleasant Valley to be “low-density” — in other words, single family homes on large lots in a sort of rural residential setting. Bradford Development asked the city to change the designation for Bublitz’s property to “urban residential (high-density)” — a category tailored toward large apartment buildings in the city’s core.
Asked about whether the Bublitz property met the comprehensive plan’s criteria that urban residential areas be well-connected to parks and shopping centers, Espinosa responded, “That [urban residential designation] is more applicable to what I would say is the core area of Winona, and so it’s a little bit of a stretch to apply that to this specific location, but nevertheless it’s all we have to work with as far as what would support that R-3 zoning in the future.” Labeling it urban residential is the only way to zone the property R-3, which is the only zone that allows large housing coops, he explained.
“It’s not really urban,” Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge said. “I’m a little bit worried, again, that we’re going down the slope of calling something something it isn’t just so we can go along and vote for it,” Shortridge stated. “We’re reaching to try to find something we can categorize something under, when it really is another category,” he said. Shortridge added, “I mean four stories up on a bluff, that’s going to be an awfully tall building there and there’s neighbors around.”
Planning Commission members Amy Jo Marks and Ed Hahn sided with Shortridge, with Marks calling the urban designation a “stretch.” Buelow also expressed concern that the high-density urban designation did not fit the rural setting, but — after pausing for several seconds — cast a decisive yes vote.
With commission members LaVerne Olson, Brad Ballard, Dale Boetcher, and Dan Hall joining Buelow in a 5-3 vote, the Planning Commission recommended the comprehensive plan change to the City Council for final approval.
Bowman: Bid to annex Cedar Brook could upset broader deal-making
At the same time they navigate the annexation request for this single property, city of Winona and Wilson Township leaders are negotiating a broader deal that would govern Winona’s southward expansion for years to come. Following months of talks, Bowman and Sarvi both said the township and city are very close to striking an annexation agreement that would set the ground rules for how Winona could annex larger areas of Wilson Township in the future.
After saying last fall that annexing the Cedar Brook property immediately was not worth jeopardizing the city’s goodwill in those broader negotiations, Sarvi said on Friday that the time has come for the City Council to act on Bradford Development’s annexation request.
Bradford Development has been working on Cedar Brook since 2018, and the township has had plenty of time to review its annexation request, Sarvi said. “I guess their feeling is that they’re not getting anywhere with the township after a couple of years, and it’s time to go to the city,” he said. “I think it’s fair to [Bradford] that we go to the council. I think it’s been long enough, and I think it’s fair that they have their day in front of council,” Sarvi added.
“Can [the city] do what they’re going to do? Yeah. Is it in good faith in negotiations? Absolutely not,” Bowman said. At the same time city officials are trying to annex Cedar Brook against the township’s wishes they are dragging their feet on a Garvin Heights Road property owner’s request to leave the city and join the township, Bowman stated. The city should focus on reaching a larger agreement with the township before it annexes Cedar Brook, he argued. “If we fight it, it’ll have to go before an [administrative law judge], and I think we’ve got some pretty good grounds for why this can’t go through until our larger deal does,” Bowman maintained.
Last fall, Sarvi said he would advise the council against annexing Cedar Brook before reaching a broader deal with Wilson Township. Now, he stated he would take a neutral position. “The township wants to try to loop all of these together, but of course, they are all separate issues in my mind,” Sarvi said of Cedar Brook, the Garvin Heights Road request, and the broader annexation deal. “It’d be nice if we had the agreement done before this [Cedar Brook] petition came before us, but they’re two separate processes,” he stated.