A controversial request to rezone property next to Amity Creek in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood has been reshaped to allay concerns that the proposed development could threaten the health of the designated trout stream.
Kevin Christiansen of Midwest Properties LLC proposes to develop 25-30 residential lots on about 26 acres of land, but 16 acres of the property are currently zoned for rural residential use, allowing for residential lots no smaller than 5 acres.
To build the Amity Bluffs subdivision that Christiansen envisions, a change to a traditional neighborhood residential R-1 zoning will be required.
But a number of neighbors have objected to rezoning the property, noting the negative impact it could have on the adjacent stream and the additional traffic new development could bring to their quiet corner of Duluth, especially the residents of Vassar Street — what’s now a sleepy dead-end road that could be extended to provide access to Amity Bluffs.
To address fears that rezoning the area could imperil the stream and the steep wooded valley that enfolds it, the Duluth City Council amended the rezoning proposal earlier this week to ensure that property near Amity Creek would be off limits to anything but the lowest-density development.
“What this does is it excludes a portion of the property that was proposed for rezoning from the rezoning,” said 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress, explaining the revised rezoning proposal. “There are significant ecological impacts from having a higher-density zoning along Amity Creek. And that is why on the (city’s) future land use map, that area was designated as ‘open space.’
“When we did the comp plan — the Imagine Duluth plan — along all of our waterways, there were areas designated along those waterways as ‘open space,’ in recognition of the need to protect our waters,” he said.
Councilor Gary Anderson, who represents the Woodland neighborhood along with the rest of Duluth’s 1st District, expressed his support of the amendment, which he said will “expand the 150 feet of shoreland protection that is traditional around our waterways.”
At large Councilor Arik Forsman noted that it was unusual to rezone only part of an established legal land parcel and asked if it was appropriate.
At large Councilor Zack Filipovich acknowledged that the partial rezoning is a bit out of the ordinary.
“But this can be done and has been vetted by staff,” he said.
The Duluth Planning Commission had earlier voted 6-3 to recommend rezoning the whole property, as requested, and 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy, a former Planning Commission member, questioned why the council shouldn’t follow that lead.
“The commission is the body that does this work, and we need to support them and trust that the decision they made was vetted,” she said.
Anderson noted the split vote by the Planning Commission.
“I really do believe this amendment does two things: I think it honors the spirit of the vote of the Planning Commission, which was to find a way to let a potential development dialogue go forward, and at the same time, to work to protect that watershed there," he said.
Kennedy suggested sufficient protection mechanisms are already in place to ensure any future development would not harm the creek and the proposed amendment was simply an attempt to appease nervous neighbors.
“I think those safety nets are in place, and we’re just building an amendment that I think is going to make the neighborhood feel good,” she said.
The motion to amend the rezoning ordinance passed 7-2, with councilors Kennedy and Derek Medved voting in the minority. Monday's meeting represented the first reading of the revised zoning ordinance. It is expected to go to a final vote Aug. 16, when the council returns from its summer break.
The idea of allowing development in close proximity to the headwaters of Amity Creek stirred concern about the health of what’s already considered an impaired trout stream, said Rich Staffon, president of the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.
“I think we’re pretty happy with the compromise they came up with. If I understand it right, it should keep the R-1 traditional neighborhood zoning about an eighth of a mile away from the creek. So, that should be enough to provide it with pretty good protection,” he said.
Some neighbors continue to have concerns beyond the health of the creek, however.
Katey Ferguson, a resident of Vassar Street, suggested street improvements necessitated by further development could deprive people of property and result in assessments that might ultimately price people out of the neighborhood.
Christiansen, the would-be developer of Amity Bluffs, did not respond to calls from the News Tribune following the council’s action on his zoning request, but Filipovich expressed confidence that the downsized rezoning should still leave plenty of land to accommodate the scale of the proposed project.
“There are delicate woodland areas all over Duluth that make this city a special place to live in and enjoy. But at the same time, we do need to balance the need to protect those areas with the desperate need for housing. And I think this gets at that,” Filipovich said.