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Quality Neighborhood Study: Study poised to move forward, despite concerns

Select Bemidji city councilors are not pleased with the process that was used to advance the Quality Neighborhood Initiative study, which last month presented its draft report to the public.

Specifically, councilors are upset they were not included in the process from the beginning.

Frustrations were aired Thursday night at a meeting with members of the QNI Steering Committee and representatives of Bonestroo, the firm hired to conduct the QNI study.

In a meeting that lasted more than two hours, councilors, committee members, staff and consultants talked out the issues and discussed what would have to be done to move forward.

Councilors' frustrations did not surprise any. They were revealed as early as October and climaxed at the open house on Jan. 13.

Phil Carlson, Bonestroo's director of planning, told the Pioneer Jan. 14 that he was surprised to learn the night before that some councilors felt they had not been informed on or included in the study.

This week, those frustrations again were vocalized.

"How did the council get left out of it so far?" said Councilor Roger Hellquist.

The QNI study was adopted by the City Council in 2009 after it rejected a proposal to implement a moratorium on the conversion of single-family homes to rental properties.

However, Hellquist said, the focus of the QNI study should have been on the neighborhoods near and around Bemidji State University, where residents have been complaining about nuisances related to college students.

He said, particularly, he and Councilors Ron Johnson and Kevin Waldhausen should have been involved in the QNI study because it is their wards, mainly, affected by such issues.

"We've watched these neighborhoods change and we wanted some real impactful stuff (in the QNI report)," he said.

The QNI study has, to date, focused on three specific neighborhoods: the BSU corridor along Lake Bemidji, the neighborhoods just west and south of that, and the Nymore neighborhood.

Carlson, and QNI Steering Committee member Jill Naylor-Yarger, said the plan was to use the college neighborhood and others to develop a toolbox that could be implemented citywide.

"That with minor adjustments and applications could then become a general toolbox that could address some common issues in other neighborhoods," Naylor-Yarger said.

Steering Committee member Joanne Henningsgaard said the committee was wondering why the City Council was not represented at either its first or second meetings.

"Were you not invited?" she said.

"We never heard when the meetings were or any information from the meetings," Hellquist said.

Hellquist said he was never invited or told of upcoming Steering Committee meetings.

"There are four of us sitting at this table right now that had no clue," said Councilor Greg Negard.

Waldhausen discovered information about the Steering Committee by accident.

He went into City Hall in October for an unrelated matter and found that the Steering Committee was meeting at that time, when he was asked if he was there to attend it. He would have stayed for the meeting at that time, but had another meeting commitment to attend.

"You know how important this was to me," he said. "I was extremely upset at that point that there had been meetings taken place, that the Steering Committee had been selected ... and we weren't even notified of the Steering Committee or the selection process or anything."

Waldhausen said the No. 1 issue that he and other councilors wanted addressed was density. He believes the city previously has failed to recognize that it has a problem and never considered what should be done about it.

At one time, he said, a real estate agent purchased eight homes in one neighborhood in one month and applied for a rental license for all of them.

A city staffer should have noticed something was up, he noted.

"Somebody issued those licenses, stamp, stamp, stamp, without ever thinking maybe that is too many rentals for one neighborhood," Waldhausen said. "Density is the No. 1 issue here in my eyes and that is the least addressed."

Carlson said he and Bonestroo staff understood that density was a major issue.

"But I simply have to say it was not the only issue," he said.

He said Bonestroo's proposal, sent in September 2009, shows that.

Carlson and Paul Bilotta from Bonestroo said their report and recommendations come from a multi-faceted approach to dealing with the issues facing the city.

Bilotta said they always are thinking of potential legal challenges. For instance, Winona has adopted a rule that only allows up to 30 percent of a block to be rental properties.

"There are some serious questions about the legality of that law," Bilotta said.

However, Johnson said he has heard that the Winona law is working great and officials are pleased.

Carlson said the city grandfathered in existing rental properties, so no one has yet challenged the law.

"You can do anything until you get sued," he said. "That's not something I would recommend to you."

Rather, Bilotta said, Bemidji should attack the problem by focusing on the areas that get to the problem, such as parking.

Codes that limit the number of renters available to a property are difficult to enforce, he said. If you require no more than four unrelated people living in one home, you could always have friends who say they are only visiting a while or have people who say they are in a romantic relationship.

However, vehicles cannot be hidden.

Bilotta said the city could limit visible parking to two vehicles outside a residence and have no on-street parking.

Usually, if a home has four renters, it has four vehicles.

"The cars are the vulnerability," Bilotta said.

If renters are limited as to the number of cars they can have outside a property, they might be more apt to consider driving a few miles further to a high-density apartment complex, at which they have access to off-street parking.

"That starts to reduce the demand for a rental," he said.

The draft report for the QNI study now suggests the city implement a voluntary residential parking permit program.

And, among other suggestions, require driveway paving in accordance with city codes as a condition of rental licensure renewal.

Code enforcement, in general, was a major discussion point of the meeting.

Another topic discussed at length was what could be done with the old Bemidji High School that is now owned by the BSU Foundation. BSU, however, has no plans for utilizing it in the future.

Carlson pointed out that students do not have an option near BSU for off-campus high-density housing, such as apartment complexes.

"We have a perfect opportunity now," Johnson said, referencing the old BHS property.

Bilotta said the property might be a good location for some high-density housing in a mixed-use development catering specifically to college-age residents.

Hellquist said former BSU President Jon Quistgaard had planned to convert that property into apartments but BSU could not secure the needed funding.

Lisa Erwin, the vice president for student development and enrollment at BSU, confirmed to participants that Birch Hall is planned to be remodeled and Maple Hall will be torn down.

The residential population is decreasing, she said, as more and more students turn to online options for classes.

Waldhausen noted that it is cheaper - "much cheaper" - for students to live off-campus than on-campus.

When asked if it was a possibility to require freshman students to live on campus, as some private schools do, Erwin said BSU has to be careful to not decrease enrollment by limiting students' options.

Participants in the meeting discussed a lot of options for how to confront rental and neighborhood issues in Bemidji, but no decisions were reached. Participants were expected to consider the options for the future and to submit comments for consideration.

"We want to see you involved from here on out," Carlson said.