District 10 Appeals Results of Commission's Vote on TCGIS
Thursday, February 21, 2019 2:20 AM

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The District 10 Como Community Council is appealing Saint Paul Planning Commission actions that will allow automatic approval of the zoning variances and site plan that Twin Cities German Immersion School needs for its proposed building addition. The disctrict council filed its appeal on Feb. 19.

On Feb. 15, Friends of Warrendale - Save Historic Saint Andrews LLC also filed appeals. The organizations make different arguments, but both are appealing the Planning Commission’s Feb. 8 decision not to vote on the school's most recent variance requests and site plan. Under state statute, that means earlier requests by the school take effect automatically under a designated timeline by what is known as "operation of law." That timeline is March 6 for the site plan, March 26 for the variances, according to city staff. The City Council is tentatively scheduled to act on the appeals March 6.

Nearly two weeks after the Planning Commission action, however, it remains unclear which version of the site plan and variances would take effect if the City Council does not intervene.

What the appeals argue
District 10. The District 10 appeal claims the Planning Commission abdicated its oversight responsibilities and “failed its fundamental role of ensuring that a project complies with city zoning code.” District 10 board chair Ryan Flynn says an appeal is “the best way to ensure that the process is open, accurate, and fair.”

The district council's appeal does not oppose zoning variances the school needs on parking, building height, and lot coverage. Instead, the appeal seks to make sure the site plan that takes effect -- and the variances the site plan contains -- are valid. District 10 argues the commission has taken conflicting votes on the school’s site plan but, in the end, would let a plan go into effect that does not comply with city zoning requirements.

The District 10 appeal points out that city staff and independent consultants have identified inadequacies in areas such as traffic flow, pedestrian safety, and playground noise that have detrimental impacts on the school community and surrounding residential neighborhood. The district council says the Planning Commission’s Feb. 8 decision wipes out weeks of work, research, expense,  discussions, and agreement by city professional staff, the school, and the community that produced proposals to reduce those impacts.

On the school’s variance requests, the district council says a strict interpretation of the Planning Commission’s decision could mean the school would receive a parking variance of only 20 spaces, not the 36 spaces city code requires. If that interpretation stands, it would require the school to find or create 16 additional off-street parking spaces. The district council board voted in December to support a zoning variance of up to 37 parking spaces, as well as the school’s variance requests on lot coverage and building height.

Save Historic Saint Andrews. The preservation group filed two appeals. Both challenge the voting procedures the Planning Commission followed on Jan. 25, the results of those votes, and the potential results of the subsequent vote on Feb. 8.

One of the preservation group’s appeals challenges the validity of the school’s variance requests, arguing that they fail to meet five of the six standards spelled out in state statute. The second appeal challenges the validity of the site plan that would go into effect automatically in March.

The site plan appeal, similar to the District 10 appeal, claims the Planning Commission reviewed “but did not either approve nor deny the site plan,” as required by city code. The preservation group also argues that the site plan is not consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, especially regarding historic preservation; allows too much density and traffic congestion; and should place additional requirements on the school, such as mandating that 75 percent of pupils be bused, that the school provide crossing guards at five intersections, and that the school build a 100-percent obscure, sound-dampening fence along its east property line.

[You can download full copies of all the appeals from the box in the right column of this web page.]

Timeline set for vote on historic designation
Meanwhile, the City Council has penciled in a timeline to decide whether or not to grant local historic designation to the former St. Andrew's church building. The City Council is scheduled to begin deliberations on March 6; that would mean a public hearing on Wednesday March 20, leading to a City Council vote on March 27.

Local historic designation could block the school's plans to demolish the building in order to make room for its building addition. The addition would contain more classroom, office, and academic space, plus a new new gymnasium and cafeteria. The school intends to tear down the former church building – which it now uses as its aula – and begin construction by June, after the current academic year ends.

The city's Heritage Preservation Commission is recommending historic designation, which is being pursued by Save Historic Saint Andrews. German Immersion School opposes the historic designation.

Concrete answers are hard to come by
Pending City Council action on the school's site plan and variance requests, here's what we know (and don't know) about the result of the Planning Commission’s Feb. 8 vote.

Variances. Peter Warner, of the city attorney's office, told District 10 the variances that take effect will be "those variances initially requested by the applicant." The school -- the applicant -- maintains that it is seeking a lot coverage variance of 1 percent (to 36 percent), a height variance of 3 feet-1 inch (to 33 feet-1 inch), and a parking variance of 36 spaces. However, paperwork supplied by the city on Dec. 3 says the school initially requested a parking variance of only 20 spaces. Warner has not replied to District 10's request for clarification, and other city staff have given conflicting interpretations. [In the most recent school site plan that is publicly available, the school added a few more parking spaces on its property; that reduces its required parking variance to 34 spaces.]

Site plan. Similarly, Warner told District 10, "The site plan taking effect by operation of law is the site plan initially submitted for approval." Once again, however, Warner has not clarified whether that is the site plan originally submitted by the school on Oct. 23, the site plan submitted to the city's Zoning Committee for consideration on Dec. 20, or one of the versions of site plans or staff reports that existed before or after that.

Each version places different conditions and commitments upon the city and school. The site plans contain a range of technical and engineering requirements. They also place conditions upon the school and include commitments from the school and city that address a range of quality-of-life impacts on the school community and nearby residents. The requirements cover areas such as parking, traffic flow, bus routing, pedestrian crossings, sound buffering, and procedures for morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up.

The only clarification Warner provided to District 10 is that the site plan that takes effect without City Council action will not be the plan the city's Zoning Committee rejected on Jan. 17. The full Planning Commission appeared to approve that plan on Jan. 25, but the commission's vote later was deemed invalid because it relied on variances that had not been approved.

How we got here
At the commission's Jan. 25 meeting, commissioners voted twice on the school's three zoning variances and twice on the Jan. 17 site plan. First, the Planning Commission rejected the recommendation of its Zoning Committee, which wanted to deny the variances. That vote was 6-6. (Under parliamentary procedure, a tie vote means a motion fails, because the motion does not have a majority.) Immediately after that, commissioners voted 6-6 on a motion to approve the variances. The tie vote meant that motion also failed.

The Planning Commission charged forward, however, and rejected its Zoning Committee’s recommendation to reject the site plan; this vote was 5-7. Finally, commissioners voted 7-5 to approve the site plan. This final site plan vote is the one the city attorney’s office later said was “not properly approved.”

On Feb. 8, commissioners voted 9-2 against reconsidering the votes they had taken on Jan. 25. The apparent result of the Feb. 8 vote is what commission chair Betsy Reveal called a “non-decision.” That allows the school's original site plan and variance requests to be approved automatically under "operation of law," following a state law commonly referred to as 15.99. (Also on Feb. 8, commissioners changed their bylaws and voting procedures to reduce the chances of repeating the confusing voting processes that plagued their Jan. 25 meeting.)

Site plan creates conditions, commitments
The Jan. 17 site plan -- which is the most recent one available publicly -- places conditions on the school involving parking, traffic, and operations. The are items the school, residents, and community council have been trying to resolve for years. These conditions include placing crossing guards at Como and Oxford; directing staff and parents not to park on Como Ave.; and adopting tactics to reduce vehicle traffic, such as promoting use of Metro Transit by staff and students, carpooling by staff and families, and increasing the number of buses for pupils.

In addition, the school agreed to implement future changes if ordered to do so by the city’s Department of Public Works. These possibilities include directing staff and parents not to park on additional residential streets near the school, and implementing a staggered release time at the end of the school day. The city, for its part, says it will continue tweaking signal timing at Lexington and Como Ave., add a marked crosswalk across Como Ave. at Oxford, and examine other congestion issues, including expanding areas around the school where parking is not permitted at certain times of the day.

If the Jan. 17 site plan is not the one that takes effect, it is not clear how many -- if any -- of these conditions and commitments could or would apply.

Originally published Jan. 25; most recently updated Feb. 21, 2019.

(C) 2019 Como Community Council.

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