Katie Krikorian was working from home April 1 when she was startled by the rumble of heavy equipment and the sight of trees falling in the woods outside her Kenwood residence.
For 35 years, Krikorian has treasured the view of the tree-studded lot that separated her Missouri Avenue home from the Kenwood Shopping Center. She said she had received assurances in the 1990s that the land would forever be left undeveloped as a buffer between her residence and the busy commercial retail center to the west.
"I still was fairly well-protected from the noise and the lights because of all that nature. But now it's all gone, with the exception of the trees that grow against my property line," she said, noting that workers clearing the property listened to her concerns about losing so many trees and contacted Tom O'Brien, manager of Shamrock Management LLC, who agreed to leave some standing near the property line.
Krikorian was not alone in her concerns about all the trees and shrubs Shamrock has removed from the landscape east of the Kenwood Shopping Center and its parking lot, said Adam Fulton, deputy director of planning and economic development, who noted that his office received multiple calls.
The Minnesota Secretary of State's office shows O'Brien registered as the manager of both Shamrock and Burlington Waldorf LLC, the company that also owns the Kenwood Shopping Center.
Fulton said that Jenn Reed Moses, a senior planner for the city, reached out to O'Brien to inquire about the recent clearing activity.
"The information we have received from the property owner is that they are doing maintenance on landscaping around the site," Fulton said. He said such activity would be permissible under city code.
"However, we have not determined whether we agree that what they're doing is maintenance on landscaping around the site or not. We are still evaluating what has taken place," he said.
Fulton explained that original development agreement paperwork for the shopping center may have called for certain types of landscaping or visual buffers to be maintained. But he noted that the development likely dates back to the 1950s, and city staff have not had access to those paper files likely housed somewhere in Duluth City Hall — a building that has been closed for business in recent weeks to slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"If landscaping was required when it was initially approved and they have removed required landscaping, we would be working with them to restore the required landscaping, whether that's through an enforcement action or voluntary cooperation by the owners," Fulton said.
The recently cleared site is zoned for mixed use-neighborhood development, but Fulton said the city has received no proposal to build on the site. What's more, O'Brien denied Shamrock was prepping the site for development when questioned on that point by Reed Moses, according to Fulton.
To Fulton's eye, however, he said the site work appears consistent with what he might find during the pre-construction phase of a project.
Fulton said the city will monitor the situation closely in coming months.
"If there is a development proposal that comes forward in the near term, they would have had to do some tree surveys before this work could have been done," he said.
"Those tree surveys aren't required if they're just doing maintenance on landscaping on the site. But if there is development, a tree survey is required. So we would pay very close attention to that, because it would appear that they are trying to circumvent the UDC (uniform development code) requirements if that's the case," Fulton said.
O'Brien did not return a call from the News Tribune on Tuesday afternoon.
Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress, who represents the Kenwood neighborhood, said he is tracking the situation, too.
"If the property owner is engaged in so-called landscaping as a way to evade the landscaping requirements of a new development, I'd be very concerned," Sipress said.
Fulton said the current level of disruption of soil and vegetation on the sight might be acceptable for a construction site. But he said: "Given that I don't understand this to be a construction site, I would have a higher expectation that they maintain this in a slightly nicer condition than it looks today. I recognize that this is a shoulder season. So, we're still getting intermittent little bits of snow like we did yesterday. And they may not have the capability to get sod out there or at least put some seed and straw down."
Nevertheless, Fulton suggested steps should be taken to prevent soil erosion on the disturbed site.
The site's current zoning could support many uses, including medium-density housing, commercial development, an office building or an expansion of the existing shopping center.