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This week’s West St. Paul City Council meeting had a packed agenda that led to the longest meeting since January. The big topics included the proposed apartments at the former Kmart site, a conversion therapy ban, relaxing the chicken ordinance, and concerns about trash and shopping carts throughout the city.
Pandemic measures are still in place with limited seating, overflow viewing, and online/cable broadcast of all meetings, including the Open Council Work Session (OCWS). Public comment was also allowed in-person via a sign-up sheet and through call-in. This was the first meeting since the mask mandate from Governor Tim Walz, so everyone in the Council chambers was wearing a mask—though the executive order requiring masks does allow removing masks for speaking during government meetings.
Clean Up After Yourself
During OCWS and again during Council comments, Mayor Dave Napier expressed frustration at trash, shopping carts, and feces befouling our city. The bathrooms at Harmon Park have been vandalized with toilet paper and feces smeared on the door. Staff considered closing the bathrooms, though Council members were not in favor and wanted to try other options.
“We need to take care of our community,” Napier said during the OCWS. “If we want the buy in from the community to invest, we better damn well take care of it.”
“Part of the contract with supplying public spaces is you’ll have some element of vandalism,” said Council Member John Justen. “Let’s try a lot of other alternatives before shutting down our facilities.”
Carts from various big box stores have also been strewn across the city, with Walmart being the primary offender.
“I think Walmart is the dirtiest, rottenest, smelliest mess in the city. It pulls everything down,” said Council Member Dick Vitelli during the regular City Council meeting. “I’d like to shut Walmart down.”
That’s likely not within the city’s power, though City Attorney Kori Land pointed to planning approvals when Walmart went in that the city could enforce. There was also a cart ordinance that came before City Council a while back but was never passed. In 2011, the city had volunteers round up shopping carts and charged the businesses a minimal “storage fee.”
The Council is in favor of reconsidering this ordinance and holding retailers accountable to keep their properties clean and maintain carts within their property.
Conversion Therapy Ban
West St. Paul took the first step toward banning gay conversion therapy for minors, joining Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Red Wing and over 70 other cities and 20 states across the country.
The Council quickly approved the first reading with no discussion. There will be a public hearing on August 17 before it is officially passed.
West St. Paul is moving toward welcoming more chickens. City Council initially approved a change to the small farm animal ordinance, increasing the allowed number of chickens from 4 to 6 hens and reducing the distance rules that don’t allow chicken enclosures within 100 feet of neighboring dwellings to 25 feet with a 10-foot set back from the property line. This will dramatically increase the number of households in West St. Paul that could feasibly have chickens. The existing 100-foot rule limited a lot of yards in the northern half of the city where 40-foot lots are common.
This is just the first step in passing the ordinance. It will come back before City Council on August 17 for a public hearing before it’s officially approved.
Former K-mart Site Apartments
The proposed apartment project from Dominium at the former K-mart site came before the City Council for a public hearing. Much of the debate at the Council table surrounded the potential traffic impacts—whether or not Livingston should be realigned, whether or not a traffic light should be added Orme, etc. As one caller noted, it quickly devolved into engineering by committee.
“I’m not a city engineer, [but] I trust Ross,” said Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne, asking for City Engineer Ross Beckwith to explain the concerns. “We need you Ross.”
The Council eventually decided to follow the recommendations except for the realignment of Livingston.
Mayor Napier also wanted to require the developer to add solar panels to the roof, though City Attorney Kori Land cautioned against requiring it as it might be an unreasonable request. Dominium committed to do a cost analysis on solar, which was added as a condition.
Ultimately all items related to the proposed apartments passed unanimously. The next step for this project is approving the TIF subsidy, which is tentatively scheduled for August 31.
- North Gateway: This 54-unit workforce apartment project was approved with little discussion and no public comment. (We recently looked at the history of this site.)
- CARES Act funding: The city will get some CARES Act funding and plans to use $150,000 for small business grants. Applications are due September 4, following the county’s application window for their small business grants. For the city program priority will go to the smaller businesses. Home-based businesses are excluded, but in-home daycares can apply. Look for information to go out soon via social media and direct mail to local businesses.
- Sidewalk and trail gaps: During the OCWS, the Council looked at sidewalk and trail gaps in an effort to prioritize the work that needs to be done. There is a long list of work to do (and a big price tag), though much of it has been prioritized and Council members will take a further look at what they see as the most important gaps.
- Recognition: Very briefly the Council considered future recognition days during the OCWS. In 2019 the city recognized Pride Month for the first time and Black History Month for the first time in 2020. Now the city will take a more wholistic approach to recognitions in 2021, including Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, American Indian Heritage Month, and more.
- Townhome assessments: During the OCWS, Council looked at whether street repair assessments should be adjusted for townhomes and condos. The example is Fox Ridge which has been hit with three assessments since 2015 and will get another one in 2022, however each assessment and the combined amount is smaller than what a single family home pays, so the Council wasn’t interested in making any changes.
- BLVD expansion: The BLVD Bar and Grill is planning a $440,000 expansion that will add 2,000 square feet and 25 additional employees. They’ll get a $25,000 business subsidy grant from the city’s Economic Development Authority.
- Council salaries: We’ve mentioned this several times from previous meetings, but the Council officially gave themselves a 2.75% raise tonight (well, they gave future Council a raise—they can’t give themselves a raise). There were no public comments on the raise.
- Town Center I: In a mostly procedural move, the city transferred ownership of the former Car X property at the corner of Robert and Wentworth to the EDA. This hints that there’s some movement on the potential development that’s been in the works for years, though Economic Development Director Jim Hartshorn didn’t elaborate.
- Plans and policies: Some fun plans and policies were officially approved in the consent agenda—the Housing Plan and the city’s Social Media Policy.
- Press table: And on a fun note (for me at least), the city set up a press table in the back corner of the City Council chambers. The table has to be shared among all the press, but seeing as that’s just me, I think we’ll manage. On a serious note, after four hours of meetings, I’m grateful to have a table.
City Council meetings are currently held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 6:30 p.m. (though note that the August meetings are pushed back one week to August 17 and 31). You can also watch these meetings online: OCWS, regular City Council, EDA.
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