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Planning Commission asks for time to study a new zoning solution

MORRIS -- Next Tuesday, the Morris City Council will consider whether to rezone properties along East Seventh Street to a business zone, keep it as a residential area, or give the Morris Planning Commission time to look at whether a new commercial/residential zoning district would be appropriate in that area.

After business owners brought up this issue in August, the Morris City Council directed the Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on rezoning property along the north side of East Seventh Street between Columbia Avenue and Iowa Avenue back to a highway business zone.

This month, members of the Planning Commission voted against recommending that the residential area be changed back to a highway business zone and asked the Morris City Council for time to explore other options.

The city zoning code was most recently updated in 2011. At that time, the zoning for this area was changed to residential multi-family because the highway no longer runs along Seventh Street.

Under the new zoning designation, existing businesses can continue to operate or be sold to another owner if they operate 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 expanded or sold and subsequently converted to another business.

Several interested parties spoke up about the zoning issue during the public hearing on Tuesday.

Business owner Six Wilcox said he was frustrated that property owners could no longer do what they wanted with their property.

“You virtually are destroying every business along there,” said Wilcox. “I thought the Planning Commission was supposed to help businesses in Morris, not destroy them.”

Don Werk, a business owner on Seventh Street, said “it should just go back to what it was like all the city council members suggested,” said Werk.

University of Minnesota, Morris student Grace Geier said some students are looking into developing a late-night, off-campus gathering space for students and community members.

One of the vacant buildings along Seventh Street could fulfill that need, Geier said. The students hoped the area would be zoned to allow for that use.

After listening to public comments, members of the Planning Commission discussed whether it made sense to rezone the area to a highway business zone or if there was a better alternative available.

Planning Commission member Sue Granger said the group had previously discussed a new type of commercial zone that would cater to smaller businesses and non-industries.

“As we were studying, it has a pretty decent latitude for types of businesses there,” said Granger. “I think that’s it’s a big change, it’s a centrally-located part of town and we should give it some consideration.”

Planning Commission chair Margaret Kuchenreuther said the intent of the new zoning district is to allow for business while protecting a residential neighborhood.

“The spirit is that we would do it to try and make it as friendly to the existing businesses as we could,” said Kuchenreuther.

A new, neighborhood-friendly commercial district could include businesses like coffee shops, small restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores or auto shops that work on a small scale.

One sticking point that will remain even if the area is simply rezoned as a highway business zone is the future of a burial vault plant owned by Brown-Wilbert located on Seventh Street.

Jack Ascheman, vice president of operations for Brown-Wilbert, said the company needs to add on to continue to be relevant in their industry.

“Once you establish a business and let it grow, you have some responsibility to keep the employment here,” said Ascheman.

Kuchenreuther noted that according to the city code, a concrete factory is a nonconforming use even in a highway business zone. If the council votes to just change the zoning back, the company may not be able to expand as they are planning.

“That’s why I think that perhaps we need to study this more so we can figure out a way we can make everybody happy, if possible,” said Kuchenreuther.

“We can’t just go back to highway business and all will be well,” said Planning Commission member Tom Hoffman.

The city council has the final decision about what will happen with the area and will likely consider the Planning Commission’s recommendation at their next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22. at 5:15 p.m. at the Morris Senior Center.