The city of Winona Board of Adjustment (BOA) denied a variance on a proposed apartment complex on Riverview Drive, which would have seen a 56-foot-tall building as opposed to the regular 40-foot height limit in that zone. The Winona City Council previously approved a similar variance for the project in 2021, which had since expired.

Mitchell Walch, manager of Whitewater Properties LLC, had been granted a height variance for a 53-foot apartment complex at 51 Riverview Drive in 2021. The BOA had voted against the variance then, but the City Council overturned the decision. BOA members said the building would be unsafe for vehicle sightlines on Riverview Drive, lacked sufficient parking for tenants, and would deviate from the rules of the zoning district too much. This time, BOA members presented the same issues as reasons to deny the variance.

The property sits in the mixed-use downtown fringe district, where the maximum height of buildings is set at 40 feet tall. Currently, Walch envisions a 63-unit, four-story tall apartment complex. Walch reckons that the project would provide housing for downtown, as well as boost the city’s tax base. City Council members Pam Eyden and Mayor Scott Sherman previously agreed with those views.

After the City Council’s variance approval for a 53-foot tall building in 2021, Walch had until November 2022 to begin construction. Walch did not begin the project, and the variance expired. Walch told the BOA that it takes a long time to develop plans.

Walch also explained that the reason why the project now requires an additional 3 feet in height — 56 feet total — is due to an architect’s mistake. Walch said that the architect didn’t catch a 12-foot height requirement for the first floor.

BOA member Tom Conway said that the last time the BOA denied this variance and deferred to the City Council was because the height would be too out of place for the zoning district, and now it would be even taller. He believes that may be the case this time as well.

BOA Chair Chris Sanchez said that the height of the building wouldn’t change the character of the area too much. The new, four-story Fastenal building and the five-story River’s Edge condos sit across the bridge from the site.

BOA member Tim Breza said that that portion of Riverview Drive already has issues with vehicle sightlines. He added that he didn’t want to compound that sightline problem.

City Planner Carlos Espinosa explained that the already present 20-foot setback — or distance from property lines — would alleviate some of those issues. Espinosa added that the building could be moved up to 40 feet further west but that that would be further discussed in the project’s site plan — a future step in city approvals.

The BOA also discussed the required parking for the apartment complex. Espinosa told the BOA that there are about 50 on-street parking spots available and half that in the winter during alternate side parking months. Walch said he plans on providing 65 off-street parking spots on-site. The mixed-use downtown fringe district requires all units to have one parking space each for strictly residential properties.

BOA member Jim Murphy argued that the building was too large for a small piece of property. “Raising the building by 16 feet changes that economic situation for the building, but doesn’t necessarily give the city of Winona a safer environment,” he said.

Conway said another consideration for the building was how people entered and exited the building. The concept of the building would allow tenants to walk to and from downtown by crossing Huff Street, which sees lots of traffic. “It might cause the city of Winona to put in an overpass or a walking path over the top of Huff Street, or change egress in and out of the building,” Conway said. “It doesn’t seem like the spot was made for it. The city of Winona is going to have some costs because of this.”

The BOA moved to deny the variance in a 4-2 vote. Members Breza, Conway, Murphy, and Jon Krofchalk voted against the variance, while Sanchez and member Aaron Slavey voted for it. The BOA then moved to create a resolution of denial for its next meeting on March 15. The denial won’t be final until the BOA votes on it again. Walch could also appeal to the City Council, as he did for the previous variance.