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Variance request fails, but compromise offered

BEMIDJI - After the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission voted against a variance requested by Ken K. Thompson Jewelry, commission member Monty Eidem proposed a compromise.

Ken K. Thompson was seeking a 20-foot-variance that would have allowed it to construct a new building set back 10 feet from Ridgeway Drive. The planning commission voted 8-3 against that variance request but recommended on a 9-2 vote allowing for a 20-foot setback along Ridgeway and 7.5 feet from the Citizens State Bank, its immediate neighbor to the east.

The planning commission makes recommendations to the joint planning board, which has final determination. A special planning board meeting has been called for 5 p.m. today at Bemidji City Hall to consider the issue.

Ken K. Thompson Jewelry has proposed a new standalone building at the former site of Northland Community Bank. It plans to relocate its current downtown store to the new building to be located on the corner lot at Paul Bunyan Drive Northwest and Ridgeway Avenue Northwest. Its second location inside Paul Bunyan Mall would remain open.

The lot, though, is encumbered by two 30-foot front yard setbacks, one along Paul Bunyan and one along Ridgeway. Ken K. Thompson, in stating that it had not been aware of the 30-foot setback requirement along Ridgeway, requested a 20-foot variance to allow the building to be 10 feet from that roadway.

Joint planning staff did not recommend approval of the request. When approved, variances have to be given for "practical difficulties" existing with the lot in question. The applicants, Dean and Dale Thompson, argued that the shape of the lot - long and narrow - made development difficult.

But the majority of the planning commission did not agree.

"I don't see any hardship," said commission member Richard Slinkman.

Others opposed to the initial request cited concerns with setting a precedent.

Dale Thompson said the lot was purchased in 2005 after architects designed preliminary sketches showing what they believed could be built there while still meeting all zoning requirements. Plans were put on hold due to the economy, but were recently resurrected as conditions improved.

Thinking the design met all the zoning requirements, plans were submitted to the city of Bemidji's Building Department.

"Everything was designed so ... that under the timelines you're going after to get this done, make sure it meets every available code restriction out there so you can get a building permit right away," recalled Dean Thompson about the process that was followed.

But once plans were submitted to the city, they also underwent a routine review by joint planning staff. It was then that the Thompsons were informed there also was a 30-foot setback along Ridgeway Avenue, not 10 as the architect had believed.

"It seems odd to me that this now cropped up in the last couple of months, or last couple of weeks," said commission member Reed Olson, noting that the property has been owned by the Thompsons for seven years.

Dale Thompson said they believed the plans met all of the requirements; they did not believe the plans would have to go through the joint planning process.

"It's not our style to try to ramrod something through," Dale Thompson said. "That's just not who we are. We could have started the process months and months ago."

Olson said he felt "tremendous pressure" with the case, because he did not want to deny the Thompsons an action that would keep them from improving their business. He also referenced a Tuesday Pioneer article that discussed the proposed building, saying that added to his feeling of being under pressure.

When asked if the building could be redesigned to fit the requirements, Dale Thompson said it could, but it would result in a long and narrow building.

"We would end up with a building that is a bowling alley in nature," he said.

The business needs to make the new building feel more expansive, to show that the business is growing, he noted.

"We want to make it feel larger, bigger, better, much more inviting," he said, adding that a long and narrow sales floor would give the opposite impression.

Dale Thompson did not address the variance that was recommended for approval. Mayana Rice, planning administrator for the joint planning office, asked that he stop by her office today so she can hear applicants' opinions in time to draft an updated summary for the planning board's consideration.

The proposal has garnered the support of numerous area businesses, including Lueken's Village Foods and Century 21 Dickinson, both located across Paul Bunyan Drive at the same intersection. Also in support is Craig Gray, the Bemidji city engineer/public works director.

Lewis Crenshaw was the most outspoken commission member in favor of the initial variance request. He noted five reasons for which he thought it should be approved, including the shape of the lot.

"I've been on the property many times. It's extremely narrow," he said, noting, too, that an "ugly" old, vacant building would be replaced with new construction.

Olson said these are the difficult decisions facing the planning commission as it has to enforce the ordinance without hampering growth.

"Our primary duty is to enforce the ordinance," he said.

"If we are only enforcing the code, we can all go home. They don't need us," said Crenshaw, saying that if that was their only job, they should just lay the books out and let the lawyers figure it out. "That is not, in my opinion, our job. Our job is to help our community develop in the best possible way."

Commission member Bruce Brady disagreed, saying that the planning commission's job is to determine whether there is a practical difficulty, which, in this case, he did not believe existed.

"That's why this process is here," he said.