North Branch council decides against interim housing moratorium

The future of an affordable housing complex remains a possibility for a vacant lot on North Branch’s Main Street — for now.

After tasking the city attorney with finding a legal way to halt the planning process for a proposed affordable housing complex on Main Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, the North Branch City Council voted to take no action on the matter after all.

The developer, Reuter Walton, presented its plan for the development to the council at its May 10, 2022, meeting. Paul Keenan, the developer’s vice president of development, told the council at that time that the company already had a purchase agreement in the works with the land’s current owner.

In June 2022, the city council voted 3-1 to send a letter of support to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, to which Reuter Walton has applied for financial support. Since that vote, the council has faced public backlash for this support.

Reuter Walton is not seeking any city funding, but based on city code, any multifamily housing project in its central business district that is not above a commercial space requires “an in-depth review procedure” and must meet certain conditions.

According to Alissa Harrington of Flaherty & Hood P.A., the city’s attorney, there is no actual “request or proposal” to the city for approval of a project slated for the central business district.

“The city cannot simply act on something it hasn’t officially received or been asked to act upon,” Harrington told the council at its Oct. 25 meeting.

Thus, the city’s options for delaying the proposed project were to instruct staff to draft a “resolution authorizing a study of uses within the CBD” and also draft “an interim ordinance including a regulation, restriction, or prohibition on such uses within the CBD” for a year from the effective date of the ordinance. Ordering a study and passing an ordinance would function as a sort of “stop-clock” on any new development in the central business district, Harrington said.

At their Oct. 25 meeting, the council directed staff to draft the resolution and ordinance. City Administrator Renae Fry, along with Community Development Director Jason Ziemer and Harrington, brought requests for clarification to the council at its Nov. 10 meeting.

The upshot, according to the memo and slideshow from city staff, is that they needed clarity on the intent of the proposed study, the “issue(s) to be explored” and the findings of fact.

Fry asserted that the issue of multi-family housing in the central business district has already been decided — as part of the process of drafting the city’s comprehensive plan, which was updated in 2018 based in part on community feedback.

The 2018 update, which differs little on this point from plans dating back to 2001, includes the directive that the city should “promote moderate and higher density housing, such as apartment-style and townhome style units, in areas where appropriate, such as within and near downtown, commercial areas, and along arterial roadways.”

“So that’s what we were struggling with is we’ve done a lot of this thinking, as a community,” Fry said.

She went on to say that these types of development decisions are best made without a particular project in mind — instead, they should be focused “objectively” on the overall vision for the community, or risk a lawsuit.

Council member Kelly Neider pushed back on the assertion that no meaningful action can be taken because there is no actual proposal before the city as yet.

“That may be technically true, but we do have something on the table that could potentially be a project,” Neider said.

Regardless, without a formal application of any kind, any action would have to be broad — ultimately, according to the council’s unanimous vote, too broad.

“Why are we doing this?” Councilmember Bob Canada asked in summary, to Mayor Jim Swenson’s agreement.

After no shortage of discussion, the council abandoned the idea of the study and ordinance, with Neider making the motion.

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