Preliminary plans are underway for townhome complex of at least 24 market-rate and affordable units on the city’s southeast side, but are drawing some tension on the Northfield City Council.
Councilors on Tuesday approved a first reading of an ordinance vacating a drainage easement on the land south of Ford Street that the townhome complex would sit on. by a 5-2 vote. Brad Ness and David DeLong were the no votes.
Council action came two weeks before possibly approving tax increment financing for the project for developer Troy Schrom of Schrom Construction.
Community Development Director Mitzi Baker said the project, at Maple Street S. and Ford Street E., is important, “in part because there is such a tight housing market here. And there is truly a need for more housing. There isn’t a sufficient market right now to address here.”
Plans call for the development to be in place and occupied by the end of 2020.
Discussion on vacating the easement lasted more than an hour as disagreement persisted over whether the property was intended for future park use.
DeLong questioned why the city was not going to allow the neighborhood to have the park he said had been promised. At another point, DeLong moved to postpone the first reading until councilors could receive more information on the issue, but that was rejected by a 2-5 vote, with Ness the other yes vote.
Although city staff said vacating the drainage easement and the proposed development were separate issues, DeLong disagreed.
“This was never meant to be a drainage and utility easement,” he said. “The easements were put there to hold them for public use.”
He said the Planning Commission has said the property should be parkland and the city promised it would be.
“Everything points that this should be parkland,” he said.
The location is private property, owned by Joan and Vern Koester, who have been working with the city to develop property they own.
Northfield resident Karen Moldenhauer expressed concern over the proposal, adding residents have seen increased traffic in the area. She predicted if the townhomes are built, local traffic and first responders would not be able to exit because of a lack of space.
“Our quality of life would be impacted,” she said.
In supporting the first reading, Councilor Erica Zweifel said Northfield is “in dire need of housing,” and the development would add to its housing stock and diversity.
Zweifel added that the city has a staff report on the issue, and she felt uncomfortable with holding up development. She said the city needs to prove it is business-friendly.
Baker said vacating the easement and the issue of whether the land the development will rest on is supposed to be parkland are separate issues.
“Our office has already put together some history and timeline and responded to numerous questions from Mr. DeLong, as have other offices in this building,” she said. “We will compile what we have and provide that to the whole council so that they have the same information.”
She acknowledged the city has some holes in its knowledge of such issues.
“A challenge we have is that there has been enough turnover that the deep, institutional knowledge is lacking,” Baker said. “So that instant memory of, ‘yes, I was involved in that whole process,’ is missing.”
The council still need to approve a second reading of the ordinance.