Morgan Kavanaugh and family

Morgan Kavanaugh: What’s the Plan at Planning Commission

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This is part of an ongoing series talking to the chairs of West St. Paul committees and commissions.

Morgan Kavanaugh is the chair of the Planning Commission. He’s served on the board since 2014 and has served as chair since 2017. Planning Commission reviews a lot of important development plans and zoning changes before they reach City Council.

Sometimes it can be incredibly complicated legalese, but it can also be important planning for the city.

“It is a great opportunity to learn, while also serving the community.”

Morgan Kavanaugh

Morgan Kavanaugh: Attorney, Boards, & Baseball

Kavanaugh moved to West St. Paul in 2012 and has a background in the Army and a law degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He’s an attorney and managing parter at the Edina law firm Wilkerson & Hegna. Kavanaugh practices in the areas of real estate and business transactions, commercial litigation, and advising closely held businesses and individuals. He’s also an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline.

In addition to Planning Commission, Kavanaugh serves on a number of local boards:

  • Streets.mn, a land use and transportation news site.
  • West St. Paul Youth Athletic Association, which runs West St. Paul Youth Baseball (and the reason Harmon Park is so busy in the summer).
  • Dakota County Special Board of Adjustments and Appeals, where he’s vice chair.

Kavanaugh also helps where he can with his wife Nicole’s Montessori business, The Kavanaugh Report. If that’s not enough to do, four kids under 8 keep the Kavanaughs busy. That all pushes hobbies and interests aside, though Morgan Kavanaugh loves baseball and is currently into researching family history. His dad is Irish (no relation to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) and his mom is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. He has memories of traveling to Red Lake and attending powwows and other cultural events, but he never learned a lot about his heritage. That’s changing now that the Tribe updated their membership requirements and Kavanaugh is now eligible.

Conversation With Kavanaugh

Let’s talk with Kavanaugh and learn more about Planning Commission.

What exactly does the Planning Commission do? Can you give us a glimpse of the kind of things you cover and how much work is involved?

The West Saint Paul Planning Commission makes recommendations to the City Council on the comprehensive plans and prepared amendments to the zoning ordinance. Commissioners also consider site plan applications, administering subdivision requirements, rezoning applications, and conditional use permits. We also sit as the Committee of Adjustments, which has the power to approve or deny variances to our zoning ordinances. If the Committee of Adjustments approves a variance, that decision is final. If the Committee of Adjustments denies a variance request, the applicant can appeal that decision to the City Council.

It is often misunderstood what we do. Unfortunately, we do not get to sit around a table and decide what businesses will come to town and then point to a map and say “go here or there.”

We review applications that have been received and reviewed by staff to determine if the application is complete. Our staff does a great job working with applicants to ensure complete applications before it gets to Planning Commission.

And much of our work is not opinion based. The question before us is often, “Does this meet our code and plans?” If the answer is yes, we should not vote no just because we don’t like the specific use or look of the building.

The amount of work involved can vary. Meetings can last anywhere from 30 minutes to four-plus hours. We also have work sessions three to four times per year that start at 5 p.m. and last until our regular meeting starts. In one calendar year, we might spend 30 to 35 hours in actual meeting time. The meeting preparation can take a lot longer, but it depends on the application and how much time a commissioner wants to spend reviewing and asking questions of staff before the meeting. I might spend five to six hours before our meeting reviewing applications, our code and plans, asking questions of staff and making notes or thinking about the issues. A rough estimate on how much time we spend is probably around 100 hours per year or more. 

Why do you volunteer to serve on the committee? Why is this work important to you?

I find land use, development, and transportation issues to be very interesting. Planning Commission can be a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. I practice law in the areas of real estate and business, so I work with clients and local governments all over the Twin Cities on projects. So I enjoy the opportunity to be on the other side of the table in West St. Paul. For me, it is a great opportunity to learn, while also serving the community.

The work is important because Planning Commission is often the first direct interaction a developer, resident, or business owner may have with the city for their project. So it is important that the process is fair, thorough, and professional.

I decided to apply for West St. Paul’s Planning Commission in 2014 after I represented a client in a case in 2013 that I believe received an unfair and unjust recommendation from a planning commission in the West Metro, which then led to a denial at council. It was a long process after that, which involved a lawsuit against the city and we ultimately prevailed. But that initial unjust decision of the Planning Commission snowballed, and cost my client, a young family, a lot of time, money and anguish. It made me realize how important a planning commission can be to the process of community development and planning. That experience got me interested in serving on our Planning Commission in West St. Paul. 

How has the Planning Commission made things better in West St. Paul? Where do you think the city can continue to improve?

Wow, great question. Where to start? I could probably provide examples from almost every application we have worked on. I will provide some specifics below, but first, generally I would say that no single person has all the answers and insights. It is important to get a lot of different eyes and ears on applications. We all have specific areas in which we specialize, but being able to bring different and diverse experiences together collectively as a commission can provide a better result in the end. We have great, professional staff in West St. Paul, but even staff cannot think of everything. Commissioners can (and should) challenge staff with questions and make suggestions that staff did not think about or have time to consider.

The process of going through Planning Commission allows for proper vetting of all aspects of development projects in our city. We make sure our plans and codes are being met by the applicant, while also representing the best interests of the city in order to make recommendations to City Council and add reasonable conditions of approval. 

A few specific examples of how planning commission was involved in the process to make West St. Paul better:

  • Town Center 2: Prior to 2016, this area consisted of two vacant banks and a vacant Sonic. The Raising Cane’s project came before the Committee of Adjustments with a variance request due to the proposed configuration of the building. The Committee of Adjustments approved the variance unanimously, making the Town Center 2 project possible. And because of that, a number of other dominoes were able to fall over several years that have undoubtedly improved the city—Jersey Mike’s, Qdoba, Talecris, Sola Salon, Goodwill, Tokyo Sushi, Bingo Palace, Planet Fitness—even Hamburguesas El Gordo and Hobby Lobby filling nearby vacancies. The Sola Salon developer confirmed the food and retail in the area was a big draw for them to develop in West St. Paul.
  • 252 Marie: In 2016, Planning Commission reviewed the application for the recently completed 53-unit apartment building. Like almost every apartment building ever built, there was neighborhood opposition that the building was too big and the traffic would be too great. We also had concerns about the lack of pedestrian infrastructure along Marie. It was probably the most glaring example of how the lack of sidewalks and trails negatively impacts our residents. But approval of that project not only took care of a long blighted property in the city, but it also helped the grant process for the path that was recently completed on Marie between Robert and Oakdale.  
  • City hall bike rack: You wrote a story about this so I won’t rehash it here, but basically a few years ago the city needed a variance to expand their parking lot. As a condition of approval, we required them to install a bike rack at city hall. Yeah, it’s a small one and it’s not world changing. But the fact is no bike rack was there ever before, and now there is, because of the Committee of Adjustments. Sometimes, it’s the little changes that are most satisfying. 
  • DARTS: When this project came before us in May 2018, newly appointed Commissioner Maria Franzmeier was skeptical of the plans as it pertained to pedestrian access to the library and surrounding area. Maria really pushed and challenged staff and the County to make it better; as a result of her efforts, staff went back to the County and the County agreed to safety improvements on Wentworth. That is something that will actually save lives, and I credit Maria’s persistence is getting that addressed as part of the process and will make West St. Paul better.
  • 2040 Comprehensive Plan/Renaissance Plan update: There is a lot that could be written about here, so I’ll keep this brief, but because of the work of Planning Commission on the 2040 Comprehensive Plan and Renaissance Plan Update from 2017-2019, land use recommendations were made and approved that would make Town Center 1 plans possible. This includes the River to River Greenway, tunnel, Hy-Vee, and recently approved Thompson Oaks project.

A few areas where the city can improve:

I believe it is critical that we reevaluate and update our parking requirements throughout the city. The outdated and over-the-top parking requirements continue to be a barrier to development. Unused parking up and down Robert Street is terrible land use and also limits our ability to expand our tax base to pay for parks and roads. As a fully developed inner-ring suburb, we should be finding ways to better utilize our land and reduce or eliminate parking requirements. With the 2040 Comprehensive Plan in place, it would also be a good opportunity to explore Form Based Zoning changes in our city, with a focus on improving our public and building standards in our code. 

Any resident can serve on a committee or commission, but is there a specific background or perspective that’s more helpful to have on the Planning Commission? Who should volunteer to serve? 

Not really. My view is that it is more important to have a diverse group of commissioners with a variety of backgrounds and professional experience, than have a specific background requirement. I think that anyone interested in putting in a lot of work for no pay should volunteer to serve!

But really, anyone interested in being involved in their local government and has a desire to make the city a better place should consider applying. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve also worked with a lot of great people during my tenure that I consider friends. 

What do you love about West St. Paul?

It is a great community to raise a family. When we moved into the city in 2012, there were only a few young families and maybe six kids in my neighborhood. Now there are over a dozen families, and 30-plus kids on our block and growing. The city is vibrant and drawing young families and it is exciting to be a part of it. We have been fortunate to find a great community of friends in our neighborhood, at the Church of St. Joseph, and through West St. Paul Youth Baseball.

We all see the “Close to it all” motto, but really, we have it all in West St. Paul. Robert Street has everything you could ever need in terms of retail and food options, there are the many, many parks to choose from and activities going on, and incredible places like Thompson Park and the Dodge Nature Center that are unique for an urban setting. I love that we can live in a major metropolitan area but still have that small town community feel. 

And I have to ask: You ran for mayor back in 2016—do you have plans to run for public office again?

I really enjoyed running for mayor in 2016. I learned a lot about West St. Paul. I met a lot of people that are now good friends of our family. I saw it as a great way to get involved in the community and participate in our local government. I fell well short of course, but I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

My wife and I just welcomed home our fourth child, Theodore, so life is day-to-day with little-to-no sleep at the moment. It’s hard to think too far ahead right now. I do hope I can find the time to run for public office again. Either way I look forward to being involved in the community as much I can. I would encourage new residents to consider getting involved as well. We hear a lot of making policies to attract new residents and families to our community. As part of that we should also encourage new residents to get involved in the political process as well.

Thanks to Morgan Kavanaugh (and his family) for putting in a lot of time to serve West St. Paul and for sharing his insights with us.

Next in our ongoing series talking with the chairs of West St. Paul committees and commissions, we talk with Kristy Otte, chair of the Environmental Committee and Mike Petrasek, chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. Previously, we talked with Mark Tessmer, former chair of the Charter Commission (OK, he was the chair when we talked, but then a week later he stepped down as chair.)

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Photo Credit: Sara Michelle Photography.

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