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Council clashes over hearing process

As the meeting ended, one member remarked, "the honeymoon is over," hinting that the conflict seen Monday night could become a regular City Council occurrence.

As the meeting ended, one member remarked, "the honeymoon is over," hinting that the conflict seen Monday night could become a regular City Council occurrence.
With five of the nine Duluth City Council members still young in their terms, agenda business has been running rather smooth.
However, with the highly publicized West Gate Townhouse project on the floor, and a full room of spectators, councilors had the chance to air some strong views.
And another issue, that was to go before the Planning Commission Tuesday, became part of the same concerns.
Adding fuel to the council's full agenda was the already controversial smoking ordinance and the latest version of the city's street improvement project.
Residents opposed to the West Duluth townhouse project turned out in force, wearing buttons and carrying signs. Many planned to speak.
So initially it appeared the council would have to make a decision on a project endorsed by the city planning department and passed by the Planning Commission, but very unpopular with neighbors.
It was also facing an April 26 statutory deadline.
The first hint that something was afoot came from Councilor Lynn Fena. "We have some new information," she said. "Some of it's pretty significant."
City Administrator Mark Winson explained some recent concerns by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the impact of the project on designated trout waters.
"The site plan would have to be revised to meet DNR setbacks," he said. The revision would have reduced the project by two units.
The ensuing discussion involved most of the council, Winson and City Attorney Bryan Brown.
Since the affected streams were not shown when a related city map was drawn, there was question as to whether the city had to legally follow the DNR mandates.
There were also questions about how this aspect of the project slipped through the planning process.
"At our desk we have a whole new project to consider," Council President Greg Gilbert said.
"I'm very disappointed with our planning department that the inquiries were not made," he said. "It's inappropriate for council to make the inquires."
Councilors Donnie Ness and Rob Stenberg wanted to hear from developer George Sherman.
But when Stenberg brought that up for the second time, Councilor Ken Hogg said, "if Mr. Sherman gets to talk, everybody gets to talk."
Taking another hit at the planning department, Councilor Russ Stewart said, "it's truly an embarrassment that the city did not know it was a designated trout water.
"That's not a good process, we've done a disservice to the developer and to the community. The process was bad. The city didn't have a vital piece of information, and it should have," he said.
According to Winson, who had defended the planning department's efforts, it is investigating the slip-up.
Other councilors raised more concerns about the project, but Ness reiterated that without hearing from the developer he couldn't vote.
Ness and Stenberg abstained, and council voted 7-0 against the special use permit for the project.
But later, the issue came up again.
Stenberg and Gilbert disagreed about the amount of input the developer had to give the council during the process.
"I challenge the council to take a look at our process," he said referring to comments about the planning process.
Stewart was again critical of the planning process regarding a Tuesday rezoning hearing. The Planning Commission was to hear a request from Minnesota Power to rezone 80 acres on Arrowhead Road.
The request isor the property to become an industrial technology district.
"I have some real questions about the process that was followed," he said.
He said the council had not yet seen a study completed on the area involved.
But both Hogg and Councilor Patty Edwards defended it.
"It has been a very good process," she said.
During the evening the council also introduced the smoking ordinance on first reading. No action was taken. Gilbert said there will be future opportunities for the public to be heard.

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