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City Council votes to reconsider zoning along East Seventh Street

MORRIS, Minn. -- Business owners along East Seventh Street are upset that a 2011 change to the city's zoning code prevents them from selling their commercial property to a different business owner.

On Tuesday, the Morris City Council took the first step in addressing their frustration by directing the Morris Planning Commission to change the zoning along the north side of East Seventh Street between Columbia Avenue and Iowa Avenue back to a highway business zone.

The city zoning code was updated in 2011. At that time, the zoning for this area was changed to multiple family residential because the highway no longer runs along Seventh Street, City Manager Blaine Hill told the council.

Under the new zoning designation, existing businesses could continue to operate or be sold to another owner if they operated as the same business. However, commercial property that isn't being used can't be sold to a commercial business. It also can't be sold and subsequently converted to another business.

"We have some owners that are not happy with that because it changes the way that they can deal with their property in the future," said Hill.

Sid Wilcox, a property owner along Seventh Street who spoke for several other property owners, said the designation was making it difficult to sell his building.

"All of our businesses along there, we're really having a hard time," Wilcox told the council. "Most of us are to the point of retirement and we're being told we can't do anything with these."

Council member Jeff Miller asked whether it was possible to grant a variance for any of the property owners to put in a new business.

Hill said he did not think so because businesses are considered a "nonconforming use" within the zoning district. Owners can operate, maintain and rebuild their businesses, but they can't expand them.

Members of the city council were unanimously supportive of the business owners and directed the Planning Commission to revisit the city's zoning code.

"As a former business owner myself, it seems not fair to me to the business people," said Council member Kevin Wohlers. "I don't think we're doing anybody any justice if we leave the zoning the way it is."

"These guys have been paying taxes for years and years and years and it doesn't seem right to railroad them out of business," said Council member Bill Storck.

Mayor Sheldon Giese asked if there was a zoning district between highway business and residential the area could be classified as, since it makes sense to not have a highway zoning district where there is no longer a highway.

"The issue that comes up when you put it back to highway business, then any highway business can locate there," responded Hill. "It wasn't really an issue of this is what we want to get out of there, it was more of an issue of where do we want highway business in the future and what to we see for this neighborhood in the future?"

Hill said this change was made without much discussion because property owners did not bring it up at the time. The major discussion when the code was approved in 2011 was about the industrial zone along Pacific Avenue.

According to the city code, permitted uses in a highway business zone include businesses like automotive dealerships, bowling alleys, restaurants and retail stores, motels, public and truck garages, warehouses and wholesalers, malls, veterinary clinics, lumber yards and liquor stores, among other uses. Houses and other residential property are also permitted in a highway business zone.

The Planning Commission will now set a public hearing on the proposed zoning change and notify neighboring property owners. After the public hearing, the commission will make a recommendation to the city council. To change the zoning, the council will need to approve the change through an ordinance.

After the discussion, Council member Brian Solvie thanked the business owners that brought this issue to the council's attention.

"We appreciate guys that have been doing business in this town for a long time and we're going to get it done right," he said.

Permit issued for church on Birch Avenue

At the recommendation of the Morris Planning Commission, the Morris City Council approved a conditional use permit for the Morris North Apostolic Christian Church for a new church on Birch Avenue near the intersection of South Highway 9.

The only condition placed on the permit is that outside lighting needs to be "dark sky" compliant -- the light from the fixtures will be directed down rather that into the night sky or adjoining properties.

The property for the new church is zoned for single and two-family residential housing, but churches are a conditional use in that area, City Manager Blaine Hill said.

At a public hearing last week, neighbors to the facility asked about drainage, the tight corner along Birch Avenue and screening.

The plan for the site includes a drainage pond to collect runoff and screening for the parking lot.

Utilities for the project will extend to the building at the end of Eleanor Avenue. That way, if the road is extended in the future the utilities will be part of the road easement.

Other business

• The council approved on sale and Sunday liquor licenses for Mi Mexico for Sept. 2013 through Dec. 2013. The license is the seventh and final license the city can authorize.

• The council approved a Title VI Civil Rights Program for Morris Transit. This requirement is necessary for federal funding, and the same as a program the council approved last year, City Finance Director Deb Raasch told the council.

• City Manager Blaine Hill told the council he would be recommending a tax levy freeze based on an increase in Local Government Aid from the state.

• The Police Civil Service Commission has made a conditional offer to one new police officer and will be conducting interviews for a new police chief this week.

• Demolition crews have uncovered a time capsule hidden in the old elementary school building. The contents have been turned over to the Stevens County Historical Society, which is preparing them for display.