Duluth's Skyline residents feel blindsided by vacant-lot saleHomeowners along the winding road atop the hillside say they had an agreement that an empty lot would go unused in favor of a scenic view.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
The city of Duluth’s pending plans to sell a parcel of land on the lower side of Skyline Parkway came as an unwelcome surprise to some neighbors concerned by the prospects of development and a compromised view of the city and lake.
Mark Jennings, who lives above the property in the 900 block of West Skyline Parkway, said he and other neighbors learned of the pending land sale only after the fact.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate to sell that property in this manner,” Jennings said.
The parcel was put up for auction, along with 19 other “surplus” city properties, July 9. But Frank Hennessey of Coon Rapids was the only one who showed up to bid on the parcel. He is slated to buy the block-long property for $20,000 — the minimum price the city would consider at auction. Hennessey already owns property at 923 W. Skyline Parkway across the street from the parcel.
The sale needs Duluth City Council approval to proceed. Jennings and others have called on councilors to reject the sale and put the property up for auction anew to allow for broader participation.
Council President Sharla Gardner said she hopes concerns about the proposed land sale can be addressed before the matter goes to city councilors for their action. To that end, she has arranged a meeting between city staff, Hennessey and any concerned citizens at 5 p.m. today in City Hall Room 303 (next door to council chambers).
Tim Howard, supervisor of real property for the city, contends proper notice of the live auction was provided to the public. This included a 24- by 18-inch “For Sale” sign that was posted on the property June 17, a newspaper advertisement and an announcement placed on the city website.
Jennings said he never saw the sign, but a neighbor did and told him that within five hours the sign had vanished. The city should have directly notified neighbors of the auction, Jennings said; but Howard said that’s not required.
If given the chance, Jennings said he gladly would have bid on the property. He contends that if the city were to subdivide the parcel and give residents on the upper side of Skyline an opportunity to buy the property directly opposite their homes on the lower side, Duluth would net a much a larger sum than the $20,000 now on the table.
“For eight lots on Skyline, that’s a pretty cheap price,” Jennings observed.
In a letter sent to the city, Marcel LaFond wrote: “I urge all city councilors to disapprove this sale and give us here in the neighborhood a chance to own and care for that land which enriches the city and is a key reason we are residents here.”
Hennessey said he wants to build a garage on the property, where he can store a 1-ton truck and boat. He envisions about a 40- by 60-foot structure. Hennessey said he, too, wants to preserve views from Skyline and would build in accordance with city guidelines.
Having paid the city 10 percent of the purchase price already, Hennessey is poised to buy the property fair and square through the auction, according to Mark McShane, director of administrative services for the city of Duluth. But he noted the City Council does have the final say on whether the deal moves forward.
Jennings said he had approached the city in 1988 about buying the same recently auctioned property and was told that it was not for sale and likely never would be.
“We were told the city would not offer the land for sale. The party line was that it was public property that should remain city-owned to preserve the view, not just for those of us who lived in the area, but for everyone who enjoys Skyline,” Jennings said.
When Jennings’ efforts to purchase the property in 1988 were rejected, he and his neighbors nevertheless were able to reach an agreement with the city that allowed them to strategically thin the popple trees that threatened to obscure Skyline’s views over time.
“For 23 years, we’ve been helping the city maintain that property,” Jennings said
Especially in light of their long history of involvement managing the land, Gardner believes the city should have individually notified neighbors, even if it wasn’t required by city law.
“I think it was a terrible flaw in our city’s process that they were not all informed of the auction,” she said.
Brian Hanson, Duluth’s director of business and community development, said the city periodically reviews the properties it owns and determines if any would be better suited for private use, reducing public maintenance costs and helping bolster the local tax base.
Development need not come at the cost of a lost view, according to Cindy Petkac, director of city planning. Thanks to provisions in Duluth’s new unified development chapter, she said the community now has better tools to govern development on the property, which is located in a designated “view overlay district.”
Accordingly, any structure built on the site would be subject to height restrictions and will need to be set back a minimum of 50 feet from the 17-foot city right-of-way, meaning any building would need to stay at least 67 feet away from the road itself.