Duluth City Council debates density, vacation rentals

The Duluth City Council agreed Monday night to continue to discuss a couple of issues that appear far from resolved: how best to encourage high-density development in the city and whether the rules that govern vacation rental properties need to b...

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The Duluth City Council agreed Monday night to continue to discuss a couple of issues that appear far from resolved: how best to encourage high-density development in the city and whether the rules that govern vacation rental properties need to be revamped.


A resolution initially proposed by At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich would direct city staff “to encourage and use high-density zoning, building up rather than out, as a tool to preserve green space and to protect the city’s viewshed.”

Filipovich argued that by increasing the density of development within the city’s infrastructure, Duluth can accommodate growth in a thoughtful, efficient manner that improves the community’s walkability and bikeability.

Filipovich noted that his resolution included no specific proposal to lift any existing height restrictions. Still, he said height will need to be part of the ongoing discussion about how to increase density.


“We’re going to have to have some taller buildings in the future,” he said.

Council President Joel Sipress agreed that it would be wise to increase the density of development in the city but took issue with Filipovich’s focus on taller buildings.

“My concern with the resolution as drafted is that it only specifies one tool for greater density when there are actually multiple tools,” he said, citing infill, redevelopment of underutilized property and townhome developments as alternative options.

If the intent of the resolution is to convey council support for increased density, Sipress said: “I’m all for that. But I’m not comfortable supporting a resolution that uses density essentially to make an argument for taller buildings, which is how the resolution is currently drafted.”

“It’s essentially drafted to say that because we want density, we therefore need taller buildings. There may be some places in Duluth where taller buildings make sense. But there are a lot of places in Duluth where taller buildings don’t make sense,” Sipress said.

At Large Councilor Noah Hobbs also voiced reservations about the original resolution, saying: “I’m certainly more concerned more about our vacant lots and blighted properties than I am interested in talking about skyscrapers, which it kind of seems is what this was talking about. … Building just up is shortchanging the rest of the debate on how do we use properties that are already there.”

Hobbs and Sipress successfully moved to amend the resolution, withdrawing any reference to increased building heights.

Ultimately, however, the amended resolution was tabled Monday to allow for continued discussion on the issue.


Vacation Rentals

After much discussion and over the objections of several neighbors, the council voted 8-1 to approve a permit for a vacation rental property at 1035 Berwick Court.

Before registering his sole dissent, 4th District Councilor Howie Hanson said: “I think it’s really important that we preserve the sanctity and the beauty of our neighborhoods, as we would with fresh water and green space and whatnot.”

To address one neighbor’s privacy concerns, Sipress successfully moved to require the owner of the vacation rental to put up something that would screen the view from one residence to the next.

While Sipress acknowledged neighbors’ misgivings, he said the application meets the city’s requirements for vacation rentals.

“It’s with regret that I’m going to vote yes on this, because my first obligation is to follow the law as it’s written, and under the law, we’re obliged to issue this permit. If we don’t, we open up the city to potential litigation,” he said.

Hanson argued: “There needs to be some wiggle room here so we can be more reactive as a governing body so that we don’t turn our quality neighborhoods into hotel operations.”

Hobbs warned against creating alternate rules for different parts of the city.


“I’d like to remind people that we made an ordinance that works for all neighborhoods, and if we use language saying that it might not work for some, we’d be (creating) a hierarchy favoring certain neighborhoods, which I would be really hesitant to support.”

The vacation rental ordinance will be up for review again soon, as the city nears a 60-permit cap it placed on issuing permits for such properties last year.

Uber, Lyft, etc.

Without any further debate, the council also unanimously passed a resolution establishing a  $3,500 annual rental fee for transportation network companies, such as Lyft and Uber, to do business in Duluth.

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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