About 12 acres of mostly forested land on the north side of Hartley Park soon could become home to Duluth's latest housing development, and a number of area residents showed up before the Duluth Planning Commission Tuesday night to register concerns about the proposed project.
The Commission took up a proposed preliminary plat that could open the door for 18 houses to be built on the site owned by Independent School District 709, aka the Duluth public schools. Sandy Hoff, a local developer, intends to purchase the property but has not closed on it yet.
Nevertheless, neighbors are already lining up to question different aspects of the proposed subdivision, including Sarah Mikesell, a resident of Hastings Drive, which would provide the sole point of access to the development as it is currently drawn.
"To be blunt, in my admittedly non-expert opinion, this route into the new development makes little sense," she said. "Instead, extending Kolstad Avenue through the current intersection at Northfield Street is: 1) a more direct route into this area, 2) a safer intersection with excellent sight lines, and 3) are wider roads and thus better equipped for the additional traffic 18 homes will bring.."
Mikesell went on to contrast the more circuitous route new residents would likely travel down multiple narrow streets if the development proceeds as proposed.
Rhett Bonner, another Hastings Drive resident, said he agreed with Mikesell and described the current plan as "absurd in terms of traffic flow."
He also asked: "Why is the city not wanting to just extend this as part of the park, because that's what it has essentially functioned as for the last many years?"
Earlier this year, the school district sold a neighboring 16-acre parcel of land just east of the would-be development to the city. City officials indicated they intend to hold that land in conservation and eventually incorporate it into the park. Duluth bought the land with the help of a $300,450 Legacy Grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
But the property now being discussed had been earmarked for residential development, as the city seeks to address an acknowledged housing shortage.
Hoff had sought approval of his plat Tuesday, but the Planning Commission tabled the plans, in accordance with a staff recommendation. The pause should provide more time for discussion about the project's configuration. It also should enable Hoff to complete a comprehensive inventory of trees on the site and to develop a plan for how to preserve some of the larger specimens.
As for the city's request, Hoff said: "They'd like to have more knowledge and more understanding of what trees are there. And that really would help all of us come up with the best ultimate plat for redevelopment out there. So, is it more of a challenge? Certainly. Is it unreasonable? No. We just need to go through the process."
To a large extent, Hoff predicts the city's interests are likely to align with those who seek to build houses in the area.
"We believe that the buyer profile that these lots will attract are those folks who are more conservation- and wilderness-minded, if you will. So, we're hoping that they do preserve as many trees as possible. And with the lot depth, that should certainly help," he said.
"The land has a lot of nice medium and mature conifer and deciduous trees, and we're certainly going to encourage those who build on the lots to preserve as many of the trees as possible," said Hoff, explaining that this should provide a visual buffer between parkland and the proposed residential development.
That being said, Hoff suggested the city might be wise to wait on a high-detail inventory.
"We think actually some of that tree-inventory process would be more effective if it was postponed and completed individually by the lot owners as they acquire these parcels, because that would be a more tailored tree inventory and plan as each lot is developed," he said.
The property Hoff aims to see developed was already platted in 1965 to accommodate 19 homes, instead of the 18 now proposed.
But those original plans would no longer fly, according to Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's department of planning and economic development.
"While it is not desirable to have a developer go through more process, the original platted area envisioned roads in different location than they're currently located and would have essentially not been feasible, based on current standards," he said.
Fulton pointed to several aspects of the proposed development that have been improved.
"Today, wetland impacts are required to be minimized, and that wasn't true at the time of the original plat, and furthermore, there weren't any stormwater requirements at all. So, what you see here is a proposal that does include those things being addressed." he said.
One undeveloped outlot with a trail easement on the east side of the proposed subdivision has been set aside to help retain stormwater. While the development does not border Tischer Creek, it is located within the watershed of this nearby designated trout stream.
As proposed, the development also will provide a trail easement and a 3-foot-wide crushed rock path from Northfield Street, maintaining access through the development so neighbors can easily reach Hartley Park on foot.
The developer proposes to build a paved walkway on the south side of Hastings Drive, too. But city staff have advocated for sidewalks on both sides of the road.
"We are seeking to really do something that creates the most logical points of interaction for both the development and the surrounding neighborhood," said Fulton, while acknowledging that Hastings Drive to the west currently lacks sidewalks.
Hoff said his team prefers the idea of a paved trail on just one side of Hastings for a couple of reasons: "One is that the surrounding neighborhood doesn't have two sidewalks. And the other reason is that adding the extra infrastructure will drive the cost of the lots higher, and it's a challenge, as it is, to keep the costs down so that the lots are affordable."
If all goes well, Hoff is shooting to complete work on streets and infrastructure for the new subdivision by mid-summer of 2020. Hoff plans to set the table for development but intends to sell the lots to people and allow buyers to proceed with a builder of their choice.
Hoff remains optimistic the project will not become mired in the public process, saying: "We understand the need for proper due diligence. But any delays create more challenges for us down the road. So, we are going to proceed and encourage city officials, the Planning Commission and so forth to try to move ahead as expediently as possible."
A public hearing on the proposed housing development has been continued until the Planning Commission meets again at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, in City Council chambers.