Despite opposition from city staff, Faribault’s Planning Commission has put its seal of approval on plans to bring an auto repair shop to the east edge of town.
Earlier this year, longtime Heavy Metal Customs owner Mike Graham and his wife Megan closed on a 3.3-acre lot at 1507 St. Paul Ave., previously used as an apple orchard’s retail site. It also includes an office and sales area.
Despite a relatively prime location at the intersection of County Roads 20 and 25, the lot has been abandoned for some time. After several years working out of a shop located in Medford, Mike Graham wants to return his business to Faribault with an expanded business model.
Graham announced plans to open Graham’s Auto Garage on his Facebook page in February, but the new business was far from a done deal. That’s because under the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the area is designated for future residential use, not commercial.
The Grahams met virtually with the Planning Commission on Feb. 16 to gauge interest in such a rezoning. They received a favorable response, with commissioners expressing a belief that the business would significantly benefit the neighborhood and Faribault as a whole. Based on the favorable response, the Grahams submitted formal documentation on March 4. If approved, their application would amend the area in the Comprehensive Plan from Residential to Mixed Use and rezone the site from Open Space/Agricultural to Highway Commercial.
A change in the site’s use would be nothing new, as city staff believe that the previous owners had most recently converted the site for a residential rental without permission. Nonetheless, the city’s Development Review Commission came out in opposition to the proposal.
That group, composed of city staff focused on development and includes City Planner Dave Wanberg and Planning Coordinator Peter Waldock, opposed the development on the grounds that it would mark an abrupt and dramatic deviation from a just-approved Comprehensive Plan.
According to the DRC, the proposal could allow “rather intense use of the property” that doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood, which is mainly residential with nearby farmland and a church. It recommended that the business instead go in an established commercial district.
Planning Commission member and former Mayor Chuck Ackman was conflicted, but sided with the DRC. While eager to see the property improved, Ackman argued that the northeast part of town is best left for residential development.
Ackman cited Donahue’s Greenhouse as an example of a business that was long ago given approval to set up shop in a residential area. While Donahue’s has proven a long-term success, it remains a bit of an outlier in an otherwise heavily residential area.
“If you were to start from scratch, Donahue’s likely wouldn’t be there,” he said.
Ackman’s colleague Faysel Ali was torn and ultimately decided to abstain from voting. Ali said he supports those who want to invest in Faribault, but was concerned that approving the change would set a bad precedent, inviting more development in otherwise residential areas.
The DRC raised concerns that the development could encourage additional commercial development in the neighborhood, potentially impacting quality of life. Conversely, Mike Graham argued it would benefit the neighborhood by adding services available only on the other side of town.
“You’ve got school for the blind, school for the deaf, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the prison and the hospital all on the east side of town — and zero places for people to have anything serviced,” he said. “I think that it would benefit that side of town greatly.”
Other members of the Planning Commission agreed and gave the development their seal of approval. For Dave Albers, Graham’s business vision of “high-end auto repair” was appealing and assuaged many of his concerns.
“It will be different than a chop shop. I see it as high end auto repair,” he said. “There won’t be 15-20 vehicles parked outside, no constant trail of vehicles coming out.”
Steve White agreed, noting that the property has long been abandoned and is very much in need of an upgrade. Even with apartments or other residential developments likely coming to the area, he said the central location could still make for a good spot for a business.
The Grahams were grateful for the Planning Commission’s support, even though the City Council needs to provide final approval. They pledged to keep up with maintenance and make improvements to the site, including adding a new paved parking lot.
“We want to have our business here in Faribault because we love this community,” added Megan. “We hope to be able to provide services that my husband is very good at to the local community.”