Duluth City Council overturns decision to require environmental review for hotel project

The City Council voted to overturn a prior Planning Commission ruling that the developer should be required to prepare an environmental assessment worksheet before proceeding with construction.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — City councilors unanimously voted Monday night to reverse the Planning Commission’s April 11 decision to require that an environmental assessment worksheet be prepared before plans for a multi-million-dollar hotel could proceed. Critics of the project have raised concerns about the impact the project could have on wetlands and nearby Miller Creek, a designated trout stream.

The EAW had been prompted by a petition signed by about 250 concerned citizens.

But Ryan Pervenanze, Duluth's manager of planning and community development, continued to argue against the EAW requirement, saying: “Staff recommended that the petition be denied, citing the city’s existing wetland review process. And permitting regulations will mitigate the potential environmental effects.”

Mark Pilon, attorney for Kinseth Hospitality Cos., estimated preparing an EAW would cost his client $50,000 to $55,000 and predicted it would push back the project timeline by eight to 10 months.

He wrote: “The delay would represent the loss of a construction season, with delay and foregone operations costing Kinseth many times that amount.”


Pilon warned that if it upheld the EAW requirement simply to appease neighbors and against the advice of the city’s own planning staff, “This Council should be fully aware of the message of inconsistency and unpredictability this sends to those who would pursue commercial, residential or other endeavors in Duluth.”

Kinseth is appealing to deny additional environmental information, and apparently they’re doing that with the help of our city staff and leadership.
Jill Crawford-Nichols

Jill Crawford-Nichols, a resident of the Duluth Heights neighborhood where the hotel is proposed to be built, said the cumulative effect of development in the area already has taken a toll on the health of Miller Creek, which is considered an impaired waterway. She described the proposed hotel as another potential domino to fall and suggested an EAW was warranted to address neighbors’ legitimate concerns.

“An EAW does not stop a project. It makes it better. But Kinseth is appealing to deny additional environmental information, and apparently they’re doing that with the help of our city staff and leadership,” she said.

The city stormwater management ordinance ... is more restrictive than the state and federal stormwater management requirements.
Roz Randorf

In explaining her vote to grant Kinseth’s appeal and overturn the EAW order, 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf said, “The city stormwater management ordinance requires stormwater management that is more restrictive than the state and federal stormwater management requirements.”

She described her faith that existing local regulations will adequately protect Miller Creek, noting that the developer will actually be required to reduce pre-existing runoff from the undeveloped property and will also need to treat water on site before it is allowed to filter into the local watershed.

At large Councilor Arik Forsman said, “I know a decision like this will inevitably be framed as pro-development or anti-environment. But I think it’s so much more complicated than that. And having been on both ends of the decision, either approving projects like this or denying projects like this, I try to just look at the facts in front of us.”

Kinseth proposes to construct a 100-room, four-story hotel at the corner of Sundby Road and Page Street across from a Kohl's store.

Adam Zwak, an engineer for Northland Consulting Engineers, a firm that has been hired to assist with the project, contends that an underground storage system designed for the property should be sufficient to handle any runoff from the development, allowing sediments to be removed and water temperatures to cool before it enters Miller Creek.


But Planning Commissioner Andrea Wedul expressed concern about the plan, noting the high water table in the area, with groundwater located anywhere from "zero to 11 inches below subgrade" for the proposed water drainage system.

"My concern is we don't have a good enough handle on the hydrology right now. We've got really shallow hydrology and, no offense, I'm not sure from what I've seen ... that we're not going to de-water this wetland and potentially bring the groundwater level down," Wedul said.

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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