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Erik Burgess, Published April 10 2014

Protests alter, but rarely halt, proposed developments; north Fargo neighborhood faces uphill battle

FARGO – Hannah Sorensen realizes she’s probably fighting a losing battle.

The 28-year old has lived on Fairway Road for nearly her entire life, but now a proposed 60-home residential development at the former Cardinal Muench seminary site is threatening her serene little slice of north Fargo.

Sorensen and a group of her neighbors are protesting the 89-acre Edgewood Estates development, saying the added traffic and noise will ruin the only green space they have.

She’s not so sure the protest is working.

“I feel like they’ve heard us, but I don’t know that anybody cares,” Sorensen said of the city.

When it comes to new developments, city and county planners across the metro say neighborhood protests rarely stop a development, although it can help change the proposal.

Planners from West Fargo to Moorhead could only think of one or two instances when protests from neighbors derailed a proposed development.

Tim Magnusson, Clay County director of planning, said that’s because public opposition to a project – the “not in my backyard” argument – is usually not a valid legal argument and can’t be the only reason to deny a proposed development.

If the landowner proposes a reasonable use for the land, and it matches the city’s zoning and long-term growth plan, local officials risk a lawsuit if they refuse to approve the plan.

“If the Planning Commission in their decision to deny this said, ‘We’re denying it because of neighborhood opposition,’ I’d love to be the lawyer that walked into that void because that would be just a great suit,” Magnusson said.

While it might not stop a development, neighborhood protests can help to change a developer’s plans.

Fargo Planning Director Jim Gilmour pointed to when Wal-Mart wanted to build north of 52nd Avenue South and just south of the Fox Run neighborhood. Public protests shooed it away to the other corner of the intersection.

Last year, 900 apartment units were proposed for the same area the Wal-Mart was initially planned, at the northeast corner of 52nd Avenue South and Interstate 29. City planners warned the developer that neighbors wouldn’t like it, but he applied anyway, Gilmour said.

When neighbors protested, the developer cut the number of apartments to 200 and proposed a “buffer zone” of single-family homes near Fox Run.

“Sometimes I think neighborhood protest brings certain issues to light that then can be mitigated,” Gilmour said, “where if the neighborhood concern wasn’t there, maybe they would’ve built something that wouldn’t have been as compatible.”

Long-range planning

Most cities and counties have comprehensive growth plans that guide the local government in approving or denying developments, and metro-area planners say residents are highly involved in creating those long-range plans.

“That’s really the time to get input from the public or other stakeholders when creating those policies, whether it’s a long-range plan, subdivision or zoning standards, other city policies,” said Kristie Leshovsky, Moorhead planning and zoning administrator.

When those policies are in place, city and county boards use them as a guide for where and how growth can happen, she said.

If a developer proposes a project, and it fits with that long-range plan, it’s hard for the city to say no, said Larry Weil, West Fargo planning director.

“(The city) could be sued on the basis that you’re essentially taking the property for a public purpose or a public use and not allowing the developer or property owner to use that property in a reasonable manner,” Weil said.

Most protests come when a developer proposes a project that breaks away from that land-use plan, like planning a high-density apartment next to existing single-family homes, Weil said.

Gilmour remembered when a developer proposed that scenario south of Shanley High School. There was a protest, the Planning Commission recommended it be denied, and ultimately the developer withdrew the plans.

There was also a protest in West Fargo when developers proposed a Cambria Suites hotel just north of Interstate 94 and west of Ninth Street East near a residential neighborhood.

But Weil said West Fargo’s long-range comprehensive plan had always called for a hotel, motel or restaurants in that area.

The city didn’t have legal standing to deny approval of the plans, Weil said, but city planners still worked with the developer on landscaping and other things to make the hotel fit better with the neighborhood.

That’s why community protests can be important, he said. It helps the developer and the city understand all the issues.

“And if you do understand all the issues and concerns, maybe there are some ways in the design of the development that those fears can be addressed,” Weil said.

Staff approval likely

Dozens of north Fargo neighbors attended an April 1 Fargo Planning Commission meeting to voice their concerns about the proposed Edgewood Estates. A main bone of contention is the plan to turn the private Golf Course Avenue into a public road so it can be another access point into the development.

Homeowner Perry Peyerl, who has lived on Elm Street at the foot of Golf Course Avenue since 2005, thinks the housing project will mean cars buzzing past his home “like a freeway” all day and night.

Peyerl, 53, said neighbors are also worried about drainage issues. New city flood-proofing policies will require homes in Edgewood Estates to be built on higher ground, which could cause water to flow from new homes into the lower existing neighborhoods.

Fighting the project feels like an uphill battle, he said.

“No matter what we find as reasons this development is not good for that part of town, it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” he said. “If they can do everything completely legal, even though it’s not right for the neighborhood, it’s going to go through.”

Several public meetings remain before the City Commission decides on the Edgewood Estates proposal.

The Planning Commission gave the developer initial approval April 1, but a final plat will need to be submitted to the Planning Commission and ultimately the City Commission.

That final plat will probably be considered at the Planning Commission in June, with another public hearing, Gilmour said.

It’s likely to get a recommendation of approval from planning staff, he said, depending on the results of an independent traffic study being funded by the developer.

The Planning Commission usually follows the staff recommendation, and the City Commission usually follows the Planning Commission, Gilmour said. However, city commissioners generally take a “fresh look” at controversial projects, he said.

“They’re not there to rubber stamp what staff or the Planning Commission thinks is a good idea,” he said.

Sorensen said she and her neighbors will keep attending city meetings and voicing their concerns.

With nearby Trollwood Park “deteriorated,” she’d prefer the seminary land be turned into a park, or at least have more open space than the current 60-home proposal.

“It seems kind of unbelievable that a new neighborhood would come in, yet we can’t even keep a park for kids to go to,” she said.

Still, she’s trying to be realistic. The project will probably be approved, she admitted, but she hopes the neighborhood can be involved in helping the development mesh with their way of life.

“You can come up to a good solution for everybody,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518