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Habitat house gets planning board approval; some neighbors opposed the project

BEMIDJI — Construction on a Habitat for Humanity house on Gemmell Avenue Southwest will begin soon.

Northwoods Habitat for Humanity cleared a final hurdle Wednesday night when the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board unanimously approved several variances allowing them to build on a vacant substandard lot. Gemmell Avenue is located on the northeast side of Lake Irving.

Habitat requested variances to build a small two-bedroom home on almost a 6,000 square foot parcel, less than half of the 15,000 square feet normally required in that residential zone. They also requested variances for lot width as well as front and side-yard setbacks.

Several nearby residents signed a petition against the variance requests, stating the code is in place to "preserve the integrity of the" neighborhood by limiting population density, traffic and noise.

The joint planning commission rendered a split 4-4 vote on the proposal May 23 after a public hearing. The requests then went to the planning board Wednesday without a recommendation from the commission.

Planning staff recommended approving the variance requests.

"My finding was it would not change or alter the character of the neighborhood if they were granted approval," JPB senior planner Andrew Mack said last week. He said many homes in that neighborhood are close to the street as well.

Geri Hickerson, executive director of the local Habitat chapter, said much of the opposition has been fueled by misinformation about Habitat going around the neighborhood.

"Unfortunately, much of the information provided to neighborhood residents is not factual and was used simply to generate as much opposition as possible to our proposal," Hickerson, along with Habitat president Judy Reese, wrote to the JPB.

Hickerson said before the meeting Wednesday that Habitat is not a landlord, but the home would be built for someone to own. Habitat already purchased the lot on a public bidding, Hickerson said.

"We’re building simple, decent, affordable homes for people who can’t otherwise buy homes," Hickerson said. "Our homeowners bring tax dollars to the county and the city, our homeowners are working homeowners, they bring money into our community."

Several planning board members said they were perplexed by the opposition the project faced.

"I’m not sure what their beef is with that particular property," board member Clark Chambers said. "You build that house there, and I don’t see the neighborhood at all in the way it looks."

Adam Steele, a Gemmell Avenue resident, said after the meeting almost everyone near the proposed home was opposed to granting the variances.

"We’re all very concerned about this," Steele said. "We believe the building code should be enforced."

Hickerson said before Wednesday’s meeting that if the JPB approved the variances, they could possibly start construction today or early next week.

"We’re ready to go."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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