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Wetlands may put a kink in plan

While some developers may view wetlands as a bane, Marshall Weems is inclined to treat them as a blessing. At least that's the tack he's taking as his firm, Mission Development, works to attract image-conscious retailers, restaurateurs and hoteli...

Planned development near Kohl's

While some developers may view wetlands as a bane, Marshall Weems is inclined to treat them as a blessing.

At least that's the tack he's taking as his firm, Mission Development, works to attract image-conscious retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers to a delicate portion of Duluth.

This spring, Mission Development was successful in its quest to get land near Kohl's Department Store rezoned from R-1 residential to C-5 commercial. He's now shopping around about 29.7 acres of land on either side of Sundby Road to would-be tenants of the future Greendale Commercial Campus.

"We want to build an environmentally sensitive retail campus that takes advantage of the site's natural amenities," he said,

citing the aesthetic value of "wetlands, water and things to look at."

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Thoughtfully developed, Weems believes the setting could be a selling point to businesses interested in demonstrating their commitment to the environment and promoting an outdoors image. He intends to knock on outdoors outfitter REI's door, among others. Mission Development has a list of 110 business prospects it thinks would be potential good fits for the Greendale development.

Weems intends to focus on recruiting businesses that are new to Duluth, including big box retailers, restaurants and hotels.

About 11 acres, or 37 percent of the site, is home to wetlands, and Weems plans to work around them as best he can.

But Weems acknowledged that some wetlands probably will need to be disturbed to accommodate development. He pointed to a man-made wetland created during the construction of the neighboring Kohl's store as being particularly problematic. Because it's in the middle of the prospective development, Weems said it would be a strong candidate to fill with dirt. Ironically, this very wetland was constructed to help replace wetlands lost to Kohl's.

Greendale's wetlands help filter water headed toward Miller Creek, a designated trout stream that already has been stressed by extensive commercial development in the area. If Mission Development disturbs any of these wetlands, it will be required to replace them in the same watershed.

"Any development would need to be well planned to mitigate the environmental damage it causes," said R.C. Boheim, district manager of the South St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District.

So far, however, Boheim hasn't seen any detailed plans for the development or how it could impact wetlands.

Concerns over wetlands were one reason why the Duluth Planning Commission originally recommended the Duluth City Council reject Weems' request for a C-5 commercial rezoning of the property. Mike Akervik, commission president, said there also were questions raised about the need for additional C-5 property in the city.

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But at the urging of Mayor Don Ness, the Duluth City Council decided to grant the rezoning. At the time, Ness said the development was expected to generate about $600,000 in annual sales taxes for the city. As the city collects a 1 percent sales tax, this would require a retail development with a minimum of $60 million in annual sales.

One option being explored to help the development forward involves the purchase of 15 acres of tax-forfeited land north of Greendale, just off Arrowhead Road. The Duluth Economic Development Authority has approached St. Louis County about the prospect of acquiring the property and then transferring it at-cost to Mission Development. This land might then be used for wetland mitigation.

There is one potential complication, however. The property was previously classified as "conservation" land, and 80 percent to 90 percent of it already is covered with wetlands, leaving little room for additional wetland creation.

Any future development plans will be subject to city review and approval before they can be implemented.

On top of that, changes involving wetlands would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' blessing, too.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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