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The West St. Paul City Council meeting covered a range of business including the first steps on a conversion therapy ban, chickens, council salary, a social media policy, and the big item, the proposed apartments at the former K-mart site.
For the first time ever, City Council work sessions were broadcast on TV and online to make them more accessible to the public. The Open Council Work Session (OCWS) and the Economic Development Authority (EDA) work session were both recorded and broadcast.
Public comments were also accepted via call-in, a feature available during virtual meetings at the height of the pandemic but now added to the limited-audience in-person meetings as well. Of the citizen comments, there were five in-person comments and six call-in comments.
Big thanks to city staff and Town Square Television for making this happen so quickly.
The big item on the agenda (again) was the proposed apartments at the former K-mart site by the developer Dominium. Here’s our overview of the project, including our (biased) take. Citizen comments included 10 people speaking out against the project, for reasons including too high of a TIF subsidy, concerns over bloated construction costs due to prevailing wage, and accusations that the developer is a bad landlord.
There’s not a lot of new information since this is the seventh meeting discussing the project, but the city’s Community and Economic Development Director Jim Hartshorn did give a little more history on the site. One item to note is that there was more interest in the site around 2016 when K-mart was going out of business. Around 10 developers looked at the site, but with the land lease arrangement and trying to do market rate apartments, nothing panned out. The land lease arrangement went away in 2019 when Signal Hills bought the K-mart site. Council Member John Justen argued that this should make the site more marketable. Hartshorn noted that he went back to half of those developers and there was still no interest.
For a helpful breakdown of how TIF works, you can watch the presentation from Stacie Kvilvang at Ehlers, the accountant firm that evaluates these projects for West St. Paul (it starts at about 55:00 in the EDA meeting).
The EDA work session didn’t include an official vote, but did give the Council a chance to give their general thumbs up or thumbs down on the project. A majority of members were in favor of the project, with Council Member Justen being the most vocally opposed.
Justen took issue with some of the numbers from Dominium, questioned taking only two bids for their general contractor, and challenged the cost increase due to prevailing wage.
“I feel like the excuse that’s being used is prevailing wage to punish us for enforcing a law that was on the books,” Justen said.
Council Member Wendy Berry also spoke out against the $5 million TIF, saying she was OK with the lower TIF amount and Dominium had to know about the prevailing wage requirement—”Nothing has changed,” she said.
“This project checks all the boxes,” Mayor Dave Napier said. “It’s going to generate new jobs and generate much needed economic impact.”
The next step for the project is the Planning Commission on July 21.
- Conversion therapy ban: Several months back a resident asked the City Council to pass a gay conversion therapy ban. This came up in the OCWS and Council was unanimously in favor of moving forward.
- Housing plan: During the OCWS the Council reviewed the city’s housing plan, which is very timely as the city considers a proposed apartment complex. What does it recommend? More senior housing, more affordable housing, and more rental housing at all income levels, among other things.
- Chickens!: Also during OCWS, the Council considered relaxing the small farm animal ordinance to allow more flexibility for chickens (or maybe ducks). Currently you can’t have a chicken coop within 100 feet of a neighbor’s house. That eliminates many yards in West St. Paul, so there’s potential to relax it. It’s likely to be a situation where you’d need to get your neighbor’s approval to have chickens. Look for a proposed ordinance change to come forward at a future meeting.
- Council salary: The Council unanimously approved a 2.75% salary increase for 2021 and 2022. It will come up for a public hearing at the July 27 meeting before it’s officially passed. This comes as a recommendation from Charter Commission. Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne noted that the job has become practically full time and it’s not supposed to be. She also says that she spends her stipend on security and improving her property.
- Social media policy: President Donald Trump is having an impact on official business in West St. Paul—namely, the city has created a social media policy thanks (in part) to Trump’s tweeting. The president’s tweeting has raised first amendment issues, so the policy addresses official city channels and when the city can remove comments. It does not apply to the social media of elected officials, though City Attorney Kori Land noted that it could and it would be wise to do so. Also of note: Council Member Justen asked if four council members responding in the same comment thread could warrant a quorum and an open meeting law violation. Land responded that conservatively speaking it could, but she’s never seen it enforced. Though she suggested they not do it.
- Mid-year update: The Council approved a 2020 Mid-Year Update in the consent agenda, which gives a detailed look at how the Council is doing on their strategic initiatives.
- Skate Against Hate: Council Member Eng-Sarne, and a couple residents during citizen comments, talked about the Skate Against Hate fundraiser at Harmon Park on Saturday night.
- Hy-Vee and trail: A couple property sales related to the Hy-Vee and River-to-River Greenway trail projects came through City Council. These are minor issues and part of a much bigger project that’s already been approved. Public hearings will come at the July 27 meeting. Dakota County should also be approving a bid for the River-to-River Greenway tunnel on July 14.
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