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Uproar over planning commission vote on TCGIS building project

Posted on 11 February 2019 by Calvin

City attorney rules vote invalid after complaints from SHSA; but commission says it will not revisit the issue

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
A questionable vote by St. Paul’s Planning Commission Chair Elizabeth Reveal on Jan. 25, has some Warrendale neighbors in an uproar.
When the planning commission voted on the variances and site plan requested by the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) for the teardown of the former St. Andrew’s Church and construction of a new 25,000-square-foot addition, the votes were both ties at 6-6.

Typically a chair does not cast a vote unless it will break a tie. In this case, Reveal cast a vote that created the tie. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion fails on a tie vote, pointed out members of Save Historic St. Andrew’s (SHSA) in a letter to St. Paul Director of Planning Luis M. Pereira expressing the group’s frustration.

“If this meeting had been conducted properly—and in accordance with both past and best practices—the recommendation from the Zoning Committee to deny the variances would have been carried forward on a 6-5 vote, and we would have no reason to appeal,” wrote SHSA officers.

According to an email written by Pereira on Jan. 29, “The city attorney’s office has advised staff that the variances and site plan were not properly approved because the commission reached a tie vote.” Because of this, the planning commission was expected to re-open the vote on the same items at its meeting on Feb. 8.

Instead, they voted to not review the issue. The full impact of a non-decision was unclear as of press time. However, an appeal by either SHSA or TCGIS is expected.

Under state law, the school’s variance requests will be considered approved if the city does not act otherwise within the statute’s 60-day timeline, explained Dist. 10 Community Council Executive Director Michael Kuchta. “In the case of the variances, that timeline runs out Mar. 26. Among things that are not clear is the status of school’s site plan (deadline Mar. 6), which version of variances would take effect, and whether the planning commission’s denial, approval, or non-decision on the school’s variance requests can—at this point—be appealed to the city council.”

“We urge the city council to correct this action by placing a moratorium on any expansion request by TCGIS and to deny the variances requested,” stated SHSA members.

TCGIS did not comment on this latest action.

Approval not valid
Early reports following the Jan. 25 meeting stated that the planning commission approved the site plan on a 7-5 vote. However, as Kuchta explained, the vote is not valid.

“Before the final vote on the site plan, commissioners voted twice on the three zoning variances the school would need to move forward,” explained Kuchta. “First, the planning commission rejected the recommendation of its zoning committee to deny the variances. That vote was 6-6. (Under normal procedure, a tie vote means a motion fails, because it 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 commission charged forward, however, and rejected its zoning committee’s recommendation to reject the site plan; this vote was 5-7. Finally, the full commission voted 7-5 to approve the site plan. The site plan includes dozens of conditions the school must meet to receive building permits.

Among these conditions: the three zoning variances—a 3.1-foot variance on height, a 1 percent variance on lot coverage, and a 34-space parking variance. The problem? The site plan relies on variances that have been rejected.”

Reveal’s experience
Reveal also serves on the zoning committee, although she was not present at the Jan. 17 meeting during which the committee recommended denial of the variances and site plan on a 5-1 vote.

Reveal, a resident of Ward 2, was appointed to the Planning Commission in 2011. Her term expires in 2020. She served as an ex-officio member of a planning commission in Philadelphia and worked closely with planning departments and commissions in Seattle and Washington, D.C. before returning to St. Paul in 2009.

There are currently 17 members on the planning commission, which has space for 21 members. Only 12 members were present at the Jan. 25 meeting.

Zoning committee’s opinion
The recent planning commission votes come after a series of meeting over several months as the teardown and new construction proposal by TCGIS moves through the approval process.

On Dec. 18, 2018, the District 10 Board voted to approve the three variance requests and a site approval plan while expressing that this was not a vote against or for historic designation of the former church. The District 10 votes are considered advisory to the city council.

This was followed by the Jan. 17 zoning committee meeting that recommended the planning commission deny the variances and site plan. The five commissioners who voted to deny expressed concerns about TCGIS being a “commuter school,” heavy traffic during pick-up and drop-off times, lack of off-street parking, and a school that is too much for the site. In his opinion, Commissioner Kris Fredson said that he thought city staff gave too much weight to the land use policy versus the historic preservation policy.

In support of the school, Commissioner Cedrick Baker pointed out TCGIS owns the building.

The city council has final say on the TCGIS building project, as well as the historic designation of St. Andrew’s Church. It is planning a public hearing on Mar. 20.

Traffic and congestion relief
As reported in the Jan. 17 zoning committee minutes, TCGIS has agreed to use crossing guards at Como and Oxford, and direct staff and parents to avoid parking on Como to facilitate better traffic flow. A crosswalk will also be added to designate a single point of crossing at Como and Oxford, and the signal light at Lexington and Como will be tweaked.

TCGIS is also exploring offering discounted Metro Transit passes, encouraging the use of the Zipcar car-sharing app, increasing school bus use, and investigating staggered release times.

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