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West St. Paul had a busy city council meeting this week, including six public hearings and some vocal opposition during public comments. The packed agenda resulted in the longest meeting of 2019—by two minutes.
It’s always fun to browse through the consent agenda because you never know what you’ll find. For this meeting we’ve got a few fun items:
- Sidewalks: The assessment policy for new sidewalks is changing from 100% to 0%. This means new sidewalks will be paid for by the city as a whole, not just the immediate property owners. This is good news, but it will mean an increase in taxes (though probably not for 2020).
- County projects: Dakota County has a number of upcoming road projects, including a roundabout at Thompson and Oakdale (2021 or 2022), reconstruction of Delaware Ave. (2025), trail on Thompson from Robert to Oakdale (2020), and sidewalk on the south side of Wentworth from Robert to Oakdale (2020).
- Official newspaper: With the Southwest Review going out of business, the Pioneer Press will become the official newspaper of West St. Paul, where all legal notices will run. Unfortunately, state law dictates the requirements of an “official newspaper,” and a certain hyper-local news blog doesn’t qualify.
YMCA Relocation Opposition
Residents who oppose the relocation of the YMCA came out and spoke up during citizen comments. Unfortunately, they were protesting a done deal. The YMCA sold their property to Hy-Vee earlier this year and will open a temporary location on November 4. No permanent location has been announced yet, and Hy-Vee will begin construction in the summer 2020.
Residents were also protesting with inaccurate information, based on a Star Tribune article that quoted a Hy-Vee executive saying they’ve owned some property for 10 years without developing. But City Manager Ryan Schroeder clarified that Hy-Vee is still moving forward with their plans for a West St. Paul store. The current hold-up is related to the River-to-River Greenway Trail and tunnel under Robert Street, which is currently being designed and then construction can be coordinated to minimize impact.
The group’s frustration seems to focus on the city for letting the YMCA leave and not exploring some kind of community center.
Mayor Dave Napier responded that the city worked repeatedly with the YMCA, Mendota Heights, the National Guard armory, and ISD 197 to make something work, and nothing ever came together. A community center would be great, and Napier wants one, but it requires partnership and money.
This same group joined neighbors who oppose plans for the former Thompson Oaks golf course, including a proposed four-story apartment complex that will bring needed multi-family housing (that project comes before the Planning Commission on Oct. 15 and the city council on Oct. 28). Both groups complained about a lack of transparency, community engagement, and keeping residents informed.
- Transparency: Napier asked City Attorney Kori Land to explain why the city has closed-door meetings. She explained that closed meetings are required to discuss purchase prices, otherwise negotiations are compromised. But she emphasized that by law deals have to be decided in open meetings when the terms and conditions are public.
- Community engagement: Council Member Wendy Berry pointed out that community was happening right here with the packed council chambers and thanked residents for coming out.
- Informing residents: Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne spoke about one of the public city council meetings with Hy-Vee, noting that the representative from Hy-Vee commented that West St. Paul has been the hardest and longest process they’ve gone through. Additionally, if residents want to be informed, they could support a certain hyper-local news blog that helps people know what’s going on.
For all the opposition to the Y’s relocation, there were as many people speaking in support of the city’s actions as those opposed.
In less controversial news, West St. Paul joined 49 other communities across Minnesota in raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21. The city council originally considered it in 2018, but declined to take action hoping it would pass at the state level. With no action from the state legislature and more cities on board (including Mendota Heights and Lilydale), city council members were eager to move it forward, passing the measure unanimously.
There was no public pushback and even local tobacco retailers are on board. Walmart and Walgreen’s already have Tobacco 21 policies.
The ALMAS group from Henry Sibley High School showed up in force and matching green T-shirts to wait through a long meeting for their turn to support the Tobacco 21 initiative. Students spoke about the pervasiveness of vaping products at the high school and thanked the council for their action.
Two assessment hearings for the Livingston and Wentworth projects dominated the meeting.
Livingston: Association Assessments
Complaints about the Livingston project centered on town home associations where the costs are shared across the association. That creates the confusing situation where a homeowner is being assessed for a street they have no access to, but still abuts the association’s property. In one case an association has been hit for assessments on Humboldt, Marie, and Livingston all in the past two years.
While it’s unfortunate timing for this particular association, spreading out three assessments across an entire association actually creates assessment costs that are still less than one assessment for a single family home.
The council approved the assessments, but Mayor Napier promised to take another look at the assessment policy for future assessments.
“Is it always fair? Probably not,” Napier said. “But we’ll revisit it and look it over.”
Wentworth Assessment Decision Delayed
The Wentworth project is more complicated and more expensive, with a number of neighbors complaining about grading issues, lost trees, and inconvenience from a project that’s gone on longer than anticipated (primarily due to private utilities).
It sounds like a mess to live through, but construction always is. In many ways the city’s hands were tied as residents complained about a county project the city has no control over.
One particular complication is that residents are challenging their assessment by pointing to lost trees and other issues. But they should have been compensated for that with their easement payments from the county. One resident obliquely referred to an inadequate easement payment—but if there’s a problem with compensation, that should be resolved through easement negotiation, not argued at assessment. Easement negotiations are part of why Robert Street became so expensive. At the very least, the city council should be aware of easement payments when considering any adjustment to the assessment.
A common refrain from residents was that they shouldn’t be assessed until the project is complete. The council agreed.
Unfortunately, assessments are done annually and pushing it off until the 2021 property taxes means the city has to bear the roughly $300,000 cost until then. It’s unclear how that will impact the city budget. The council opted to table the issue and get more information, but due to a strict legal timeline they have to make a decision at the next meeting if they want the assessments applied to 2020 property taxes.
- Body cameras: The West St. Paul Police Department is going through a state-mandated process to add body cameras. Part of that includes creating a body camera policy and getting public input. The city is already soliciting feedback online and held a required public hearing tonight.
- More auto parts stores: West St. Paul is auto parts and chicken, right? Well, turns out we limit “auto accessory stores” by zoning, and that’s creating a problem as AutoZone tries to relocate within the city. During Open Council Work Session (OCWS) the council agreed to explore a fix, so staff will hammer out a zoning tweak. Why is AutoZone relocating anyway? Well…
- Tunnel: OCWS also included an update on the Robert Street tunnel, part of the River-to-River Greenway Trail that is planned for 2020. Construction is expected to start in July and will finish over the winter. But get ready for the whining—Robert Street will go down to one lane in each direction during construction, from July to October. (Why didn’t they just build the tunnel when they re-did Robert Street? The Robert Street project barely passed as it was and there was no support for additional costs.)
- Public safety committee: Also during OCWS, the city council gave direction to the misnamed public safety committee to begin exploring concerns about crime and code enforcement, as well as engaging with the business community. Council Member Anthony Fernandez pushed for the committee to be a chance to proactively tackle issues.
- Massage: The city is raising the cap on massage therapy licenses, partially to accommodate the new Sola Salon. Discussion at an earlier OCWS wanted to welcome new business while also maintaining oversight to limit any potential issues with human trafficking. Look for a public hearing at the next city council meeting.
- Charity hockey: The police vs. fire charity hockey game on Saturday raised $12,340 in support of 360 Communities. To learn more about the work of 360 Communities, check out our interview with Ana January.
Fun fact: At 2 hours, 26 minutes, this meeting claimed the crown of longest meeting of 2019 and second longest meeting in the last year. It beat out the May 28 meeting by two minutes. The longest meeting in the last year was Nov. 26, 2018 at 3 hours, 46 minutes, when the Garlough site plan, HyVee, and Wentworth reconstruction all dominated the agenda.
City council meetings are open to the public and generally held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 6:30 p.m. You can also watch this meeting online.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that West St. Paul removed PUP penalties from the ordinance, like many of the other cities have as well, in order to put the onus back on the tobacco retailers. Historically, the city has been able to charge people under the age of 18 with petty misdemeanors based on our previous ordinance. This change will remove that ordinance and follow state law. It may seem like a minor change, but as evident in the Open Council Work Session, it wasn’t so cut and dry.
Thanks for giving some clarity on that. The back and forth in the OCWS made my brain hurt.