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Joint Planning Commission: Housing project gets positive recommendation

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Acknowledging that questions still remain, the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission Thursday night threw its support behind a supportive housing plan for homeless and transitioning families.

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"I, personally, feel very strongly that we need to do whatever we can to help move this forward," said JPC member Matthew Dyrdahl.

The HHDC hopes to build a 20-unit supportive housing project on 5.1 acres of land now owned by the Beltrami County Housing and Redevelopment Authority north of the Bi-County Community Action Program, Inc., building north of 15th Street.

The project would provide permanent and short-term rental housing and supporting services for homeless and transitioning families. Housing is proposed to be broken into five four-unit town home-like complexes.

"Staff sees it as a start in the right direction to addressing some of the more serious homeless issues," said Mel Milender, the administrator for the joint planning office.

The project was previously proposed to be in the North Lake Irving neighborhood was pulled following complaints and concerns from existing residents.

Milender said the current proposed location - north of 15th Street and east of U.S. Highway 2 - is more "ideal."

Since many of the residents are expected to not have their own means of transportation, Milender said it was good that the current location is near schools, services and entry-level jobs.

"Since this has been announced, there has not been one phone call from any neighbors saying that we shouldn't do this," Milender said.

The JPC did vote 10-0 to recommend approval, but some commissioners were hesitant to take action on the submitted Planned Unit Development.

City and joint planning staff had, while compiling the packet for the meeting, raised several issues associated with the project, such as parking amounts and whether there was an adequate buffer from Highway 2.

Paul Richards, architect with Widseth Smith Nolting, received those comments and presented a revised site plan Thursday during the meeting.

The new plan shifted the projected roadway for Conifer Avenue (that would run north between 15th and 23rd streets) to the east side of the housing development rather than its previous position at the west side.

Commissioners' discussion centered on three issues in particular: access for emergency vehicles, number of parking spaces and the parkland dedication requirement.

While the new site ensures that the properties are accessible by emergency vehicles and that the buildings can be reached using 150-foot-long fire hoses, certain commissioners were still worried about the expediency required in emergency situations.

Commissioner George Stowe said he would like to see the sidewalks widened in the project to be able to accommodate emergency vehicles. Commissioner Richard Slinkman suggested that parking lots be moved closer to the housing units.

Because the project has been in the works for several years, the HHDC actually proposed it before the joint planning venture was created.

Tim Flathers, community development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, said the HHDC had discussed the parking requirement with the then-city planner, who had approved a departure from the required two parking spots per housing unit.

The JPC decided to recommend a compromise of 1.5 spots per unit, taking into account that residents are likely to have visitors.

Everyone agreed that a project of its size requires a park of some type for the area children.

Flathers said a playground or park area is required by Minnesota Housing, which is helping to finance the project.

"We're talking about a development that is going to have kids, and they want kids to have something to do," Flathers said. "That's essential."

The JPC ultimately voted to recommend approval of the project. Joint planning staff will work with Flathers and Richards prior to the Oct. 14 Joint Planning Board meeting to ensure that all requirements are being addressed.

"My conscience wouldn't let me pass on doing something positive on this issue," said Commissioner Genevieve Lowry. "I can't let this opportunity pass."

bwesley@bemidjipioneer.com

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