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Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board: New height for south shore

The city of Bemidji can reach a little higher.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board voted 5-3 Wednesday in favor of allowing development in the 140-acre south shore to reach as high as 80 feet.

"The truth is we're here promoting this because of aesthetics," Bemidji City Manager John Chattin said in a presentation to the JPB.

By ordinance, the maximum height is 65 feet in the Lakeshore District, which encompasses the south shore.

The JPB's approval allows development to be 15 feet higher. But, those extra feet will not be able to be occupied space, meaning that it may not be livable space.

Rather, the extra feet will instead allow for peaked and sloped roofs and for mechanical needs such as air-conditioning units and elevator shafts.

No more than 50 percent of a building's height will be allowed to be at 80 feet, and the city will require that buildings, from the lakeshore, first be 35 feet and then step up toward their final height.

"The whole purpose of doing this is to force a developer to build a building that is more aesthetically pleasing," Chattin said.

Voting in favor of the increased height were JPB members Roger Hellquist, Ron Johnson Richard Lehmann, chairman Tim Mountain and Jim Thompson.

Opposed were JPB members Becky Livermore, Greg Negard and Joan McKinnon.

"The standard was put in place and I think it's something we need to follow," McKinnon said.

Perhaps most passionate against the increase was Livermore, who cited earlier meetings in which the planning board and planning commission were led to believe that the Bemidji Regional Event Center would be the only building for which the city would ask for an increase in height. The BREC in December received a variance for an additional 21 feet.

"We struggled long and hard, but we finally decided that, yes, the event center building itself needed to be the focal point of the development," Livermore said.

But, now, the city was back asking for "blanket approval" that would allow other buildings to also be higher, she said.

"We need to show the people of the community that we stand by what we say and what we do," Livermore said.

No public comment was taken on the height request since the public hearing on the issue was held in May. However, one woman in the audience loudly applauded following Livermore's statements.

The consideration and subsequent approval of the height request was held in conjunction with the JPB's consideration of the Planned Unit Development for the south shore and the submission of the final plat. On those two issues, the JPB voted unanimously to approve.

The discussion on the height request spanned more than an hour, during which each JPB member took time to state his or her position on the issue.

Lehmann pointed out that the highest landmark on the south lakeshore will still be the water tower, which is 165 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet from the shoreline.

"That's still going to be the prevailing .... reference point for many of the anglers out there (on Lake Bemidji)," he said.

Johnson noted that the current ordinance would not allow for the construction of a duplicate Hampton Inn & Suites, which is 67 feet tall and 75 feet from the shoreline. The south shore development will be set back at least 150 feet from the shoreline.

"The Hampton Inn is probably the jewel of the lake," he said.

The vote came down to Mountain as the other seven board members stated their positions early in the discussion. He ultimately voted for the height increase, but stated that the JPB could be setting a precedent.

While the Lakeshore District now only applies to the south shore, Mountain noted that a group of lakeside property owners or Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge could choose to sell their properties and a developer could request that land to be rezoned Lakeshore District, which would then allow for additional 80-foot-tall buildings.

"I do think we do have to understand that in taking these actions, we do open up the lake," he said.

Lehmann said, though, that any rezone request would have to come before the JPB, which could vote to deny the change.