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Joint Planning: Businesses learn about JPB process

Even those who live outside of the city limits consider themselves Bemidji residents.

When someone asks where he is from, "I always say Bemidji," said Tim Mountain, a Northern Township resident and chair of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. "We're part of the Bemidji community."

That sentiment played a large role in the development of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which was formed to provide consistent planning and zoning services for the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships.

About 20 people attended a Thursday afternoon meeting at Bemidji City Hall that aimed to describe the history and mission of the joint planning process between the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships.

The foundation for the JPB was set as a group of about 20 people from the city and townships began meeting in late 2003 to discuss annexation and growth-management concerns.

Mel Milender, the planning administrator for the joint planning office, said those meetings resulted in the development of a unified vision.

"That single vision was to have smart growth as much as possible," he said.

Further, that group developed the orderly annexation agreement, which defined three rings of properties that would become eligible for annexation throughout a 15-year period in five-year increments.

That agreement will result in the annexation of about 30 percent of each of Bemidji and Northern townships' properties, Milender said.

Each entity had its own set of ordinances and requirements for development and land use, Milender noted. When the JPB was formed, those all had to be combined.

That process led to the development of the Greater Bemidji Area Zoning and Subdivision Regulations ordinance.

"It was a monumental task to do that," Milender said.

That zoning ordinance is reviewed and revised each year, as deemed necessary by JPB members.

The process

The zoning ordinance regulates development rules such as land use, signs, septic systems, subdivisions and lot combinations, shoreland rules, animals and tree preservation.

While many types of applications - such as building permits and permits for signs, septic systems and lot divisions - are handled by joint planning staff, some need to go through the public process.

Usually for larger, perhaps more controversial decisions such as variance, rezoning or conditional use requests, there is a process through which a public hearing is held and action taken by elected officials.

First, the public hearing is held before the Joint Planning Commission, a group composed of 12 appointed members. Six are from the city and three are from each township. They consider the public input, the application and make a recommendation to the JPB.

The JPB make the final decision. The board is composed of eight elected officials: four from the city and two from each of the townships.

"It's an equally numbered board that has worked very, very well together," Milender said.

The joint planning office consists of three full-time employees: Milender; Andrew Mack, assistant planner; and Jinger Pulkrabek, administrative assistant.

Milender noted that even if a staff decision is not favorable to a business owner or resident, he or she always has the right to appeal to the Board of Adjustment, which is the JPB.

"You can always challenge a staff decision to the JPB," he said.


The forum, sponsored by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, was intended to offer an opportunity for business owners who wanted to ask questions.

The bulk of the questions were directed at the process for submitted a development proposal.

Milender said the joint planning office is becoming the contact point for people submitted development proposals as he and his staff have formed a "pre-application review process." The process allows a developer to submit a development idea and the joint planning staff contacts all other involved entities (i.e. the city, Beltrami County, Minnesota Department of Transportation, etc.). Those entities then can attend the meeting or submit written questions or concerns with the development, which can be addressed before a final application is submitted.

"You come to us with a project and we will coordinate a meeting with all of those agencies," Milender said. "That's something that can speed up your application process by several months."