BEMIDJI -- A local LLC is planning to remodel a building along State Highway 197 into a Pizza Ranch, but first, it must have a variance approved by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

On Wednesday, April 14, the JPB will meet and consider a variance that was approved by the Joint Planning Commission at its March 25 meeting. The variance will allow Northern Fire Hospitality, LLC, to increase the population at 1635 Paul Bunyan Drive NW from 51 to 461 occupants, and open a Pizza Ranch restaurant.

The area was once the site of UBC Lumber and contains four parcels with 3.39 acres. The applicant, according to JPB documents, intends to use the south side of the building as the restaurant option while usage of the north side hasn't been determined, although storage is an option.

A variance is necessary because the building is in a dual zoning area. The property is in both the General Commercial in the Trunk Highway 197 and Airport B Overlay zoning districts.

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In JPB documents, planning staff recommended approval of the variance. Staff found that while the airport overlay district does not support a more intense use in the area, the city has established "several standards to be reviewed in a variance proceeding" such as economic benefits and providing alternative crash zones.

Additionally, planning staff noted that the site is currently developed and the restaurant would be another compatible use.

Northern Fire Hospitality, LLC, hopes to transform the former UBC Lumber building located at 1635 Paul Bunyan Drive NW into a Pizza Ranch, pending a variance by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Northern Fire Hospitality, LLC, hopes to transform the former UBC Lumber building located at 1635 Paul Bunyan Drive NW into a Pizza Ranch, pending a variance by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The JPC approved the variance request, with board members Jeremy Berg, Judy David, Joe Gould, Mike Granlund, Nicki Lemmer and Allen Steffen voting in favor. Tim Faver, Don Heinonen and Bill Smith, meanwhile, were against.

In a letter included in the JPB's meeting packet, though, Bemidji Regional Airport Executive Director Karen Weller said she is strongly opposed to the variance. In her comments, Weller states the current zoning around the airport is meant to protect nearby areas in the event of a plane crash.

The building in question is 1,000 feet from the airport's runway and its property edge is 890 feet away.

By approving the variance in question and others like it, Weller writes that this protection could be lessened. Additionally, it could threaten state funding.

"Airport zoning exists to protect the approaches to the runways as well as protecting people and property on the ground in the event that an aircraft accident occurs and every variance such as this one that is issued is a piece-by-piece erosion of established and protected zones."

Weller also cautioned that if similar variances continue to be approved, it could become problematic. A similar situation happened in 2003 when the airport authority received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Aeronautics.

The letter raised concerns about the accumulation of structures within the runway hazard area and the impacts they have on public safety. The letter also noted that state funding for construction and maintenance projects would be withheld from the airport in July 2004, unless the facility became more compliant with safety zoning requirements.

Weller writes that the letter started a series of projects requiring millions of local, state and federal dollars to bring the airport into compliance.

"It is our duty to protect the millions of federal, state and local dollars that have been invested in the Bemidji Regional Airport over the last 18 years to correct the issues that came to a head in 2003," Weller stated. "I implore the GBAJPB to put long-established airport zoning and safety above economic development in this case."

"If this variance is approved, I am fearful that it will begin the slow eroding of noncompliance with airport zoning until we end up right back to 2004," Weller wrote. "I would then hold the GBAJPB responsible to fund further airport operations and capital improvements because the chances of FAA and MnDOT Aeronautics funding being lost will once again become a reality."