Neighbors ask for environmental review of proposed Woodland housing development

Jen Marksteiner, who lives on Vassar Street, just west of the 16-acre property intended to accommodate new housing, swung into action, circulating a petition that called for an environmental review of the proposed Amity Bluffs project, after the Duluth Planning Commission voted 6-3 on June 8 in support of rezoning the property from rural residential to traditional neighborhood residential — a designation that would allow for much denser development than is currently allowed.

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“We had significant concerns about the increased density of possible housing back there and what the environmental impacts would be on this particular piece of land,” she said.

Marksteiner quickly collected the 100 signatures Minnesota Environmental Quality Board requires to request a review called an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW). She sent the petition to state officials June 14.

Marksteiner rattled through a list of her reservations, including the impact on wetlands in the area, increased runoff from development, the steep grade of the property, the impact on trout and other wildlife in the area, the prospect of disturbing migrating birds and the additional traffic such a development would bring to her neighborhood.

Glenn Merrick, a member of the McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, shares many of those concerns.

“We’re thinking about the whole watershed and looking at the reality that Amity does have an impairment for turbidity,” he said. “There’s been a lot of work done downstream in the main stem of the Amity to address the turbidity issue. But there’s not a lot known about the west branch, and as you get higher in the watershed, you want to make sure that you have good water storage in wetlands and you also don’t want to affect soils that can store water.

“We’d like to see that looked at more seriously,” Merrick said. “We just want a closer examination.”

But city planning staff have recommended the Duluth Planning Commission stay the course.

(Gary Meader / News Tribune)

(Gary Meader / News Tribune)

In a memo to commissioners, Senior Planner Steven Robertson wrote: “Based on the available project information, it is the recommendation of city staff that there are sufficient regulatory and mitigation standards in place to minimize environmental impacts, and that an EAW is not needed and the petition should be denied.”

Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth’s planning and economic development department, noted that the would-be developer, Kevin Christiansen, has requested the 16-acre zoning change with the stated hope of later bringing 25-30 residential lots to market on that property and an adjacent 10 acres. But it’s just a conceptual plan that’s not fleshed out right now.

“So, there is no project at this time,” Fulton said. “I don’t have anything to evaluate. It’s a zoning change.”

“This could come forward, and there could be a subsequent petition once a project is proposed. But at the present time, we don’t have a project proposed,” he said.

But Marksteiner pointed out that Christiansen might embark on an even more ambitious development plan than he has described if the proposed zoning change is approved. The current “rural residential” zoning allows for residential lots of no less than five acres and reduces that limit to 4,000 square feet, potentially allowing 54 times as many homes on the same five acres of land.

However, Fulton noted that city development standards would rein in the project considerably, given that they govern stormwater management, shoreland setbacks, floodplain management, setbacks to provide for the provision of light and air and open space, as well as tree preservation. Those standards all fall under the natural resources overlay section of Duluth’s official uniform developer chapter.

Yet Merrick maintains that a zoning change could have permanent consequences that should be explored in advance.

“Once these things happen, you can’t easily go back and undo them, if you find that you’ve made a mistake,” he said.

Any proposed zoning change recommended by the Planning Commission would still need to be approved by the Duluth City Council.