Neighbors to ask Duluth City Council to block Skyline land saleCity Council President Sharla Gardner hoped an informal meeting Thursday would work out neighborhood concerns over the recent sale of vacant land on West Skyline Parkway.
City Council President Sharla Gardner hoped an informal meeting Thursday would work out neighborhood concerns over the recent sale of vacant land on West Skyline Parkway.
That did not happen.
About a dozen people showed up at Duluth City Hall to discuss the plans with city staff. Most were upset the city land was sold with minimal notice to a single minimum bidder — another neighbor — when they were under the impression the city had no intention of selling the lots. And they want the sale canceled.
“If the administration doesn’t scrub this thing, we will take it to City Council,” said Mark Jennings, who lives above the property on the 900 block of West Skyline.
The land on the lower side of the 900 block of West Skyline, which adds up to about eight lots, was sold at auction for $20,000. Residents at the meeting said the city didn’t do a good enough job of informing them of the sale, and some wondered why the land was not preserved because Skyline is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
“Of all the property in Duluth, this should be red-flagged. … It should be considered sacred,” said Dawn Fitzgerald, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.
Tim Howard, supervisor of real property for the city, said the property had been evaluated internally for about two years and was determined to be a candidate for auction. He said because there is limited access to the site and because three of the lots near a creek cannot be developed, they decided to include all the land in one parcel.
“Parcels that have never been developed … we are taking a harder and harder look at those and determining whether the city has a need for those,” he said before the meeting.
Jennings said publishing a small ad, even a few times, in the newspaper was not sufficient to make people aware of the sale.
“I think the city could have made a lot more money if (they’d) contacted the people on Sixth or on Skyline who’ve been talking about it for decades,” he said.
The minimum bid of $20,000 was set by the city assessor’s office based on a combination of market value and what they think will generate interest in bidding, Howard said.
Brian Hanson, Duluth’s director of business and community development, said it wouldn’t be cost-effective to do more marketing of the properties before auction.
“The council told us, ‘Here’s how we’d like you to conduct land sales,’ and we followed the process,” he said. “It’s worked for a long time and, in this case, I think it worked for the majority of the neighbors.”
Neighbor Randy Virta, who was unable to attend the meeting, said in an
e-mail to city officials that he and his wife, Darlene Virta, knew about the sale ahead of time and went to the auction prepared to bid. He said they had only planned to bid if a developer was interesting in purchasing.
Instead, their next-door neighbor, Frank Hennessey, was there and the Virtas opted not to bid against him.
“We support Frank Hennessey’s purchase of the property,” Virta wrote.
Jennings said because he had expressed interest in purchasing the land years ago and because he and other neighbors had been working with the city forester since 1988 to preserve the view, they should have been notified in writing about the auction.
He said he was told by city officials that the land would never be sold, so he would have no reason to look for sale notices in the newspaper or online.
Because a private owner wouldn’t have to work with neighbors to thin trees, Jennings predicted his view would be gone within five years.
For his part, Hennessey said his intention for the land is “to let it sit” while he pays it off. He had expressed interest in building a garage there to house a truck and boat, but learned Thursday he couldn’t build a garage unless he also built a house.
“I bought the house because I love the view,” he said of the home he owns on the upper side of Skyline. “I will help out the neighbors and cut trees down.”
Because of the city’s recently passed unified development code, any building Hennessey plans will be limited as far as height and width in order to preserve the view for everyone, said Cindy Petkac, director of city planning.
Gardner said she believes the neighbors should have gotten a letter about the auction and said she would work toward changing the process involved in putting land up for sale. She also said the sale appeared to be legal, and she’d have to consult with city attorneys.
The sale needs council approval to proceed and city officials said it probably would come before the council for a vote on Aug. 29.