St. Andrews Group Appeals Planning Commission's 'Non-Decision'
Friday, January 25, 2019 11:20 AM


Friends of Warrendale - Save Historic Saint Andrews LLC is appealing Saint Paul Planning Commission actions that will allow automatic approval of the zoning variances and site plan that Twin Cities German Immersion School needs for its proposed building addition. The City Council needs to act on the appeal by March 6.

On Feb. 8, the Planning Commission voted not to vote on the school's variance requests and site plan. Under state statute, that means the school's requests take effect automatically under a designated timeline by what is known as "operation of law." That timeline is March 6 for the site plan, March 26 for the variances, according to city staff. A week after the Planning Commission action, however, it remains unclear which version of the site plan and variances will take effect. Here's what we know (and don't know).

Variances. Peter Warner, of the city attorney's office, told District 10 the variances that take effect will be "those variances initially requested by the applicant." The school -- the applicant -- maintains that it is seeking a lot coverage variance of 1 percent (to 36 percent), a height variance of 3 feet-1 inch (to 33 feet-1 inch), and a parking variance of 36 spaces. However, paperwork supplied by the city on Dec. 3 says the school initially requested a parking variance of only 20 spaces. Warner has not replied to District 10's request for clarification.

Site plan. Similarly, Warner told District 10, "The site plan taking effect by operation of law is the site plan initially submitted for approval." Once again, however, he has not clarified whether that is the site plan originally submitted by the school on Oct. 23, the site plan submitted to the city's Zoning Committee for consideration on Dec. 20, or one of the versions of plans or staff reports that existed before or after that.

Each version places different conditions and commitments upon the city and school. In addition to a range of technical and engineering requirements, conditions in the site plan address a range of quality-of-life impacts on pupils and nearby residents. The requirements cover areas such as parking, traffic flow, bus routing, pedestrian crossings, sound buffering, and procedures for morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up.

The only clarification Warner provided to District 10 is that the plan that takes effect will not be the plan that the Zoning Committee rejected on Jan. 17. The full Planning Commission appeared to approve that plan on Jan. 25, but the commission's vote later was deemed invalid because it relied on variances that had not been approved. "I am only familiar with the Jan. 17 site plan," Warner told District 10.

How we got here
At the commission's Jan. 25 meeting, commissioners voted twice on the school's three zoning variances and twice on the Jan. 17 site plan. First, the Planning Commission rejected the recommendation of its Zoning Committee, which wanted to deny the variances. That vote was 6-6. (Under parliamentary procedure, a tie vote means a motion fails, because the motion does not have a majority.) Immediately after that, commissioners voted 6-6 on a motion to approve the variances. The tie vote meant that motion also failed.

The Planning Commission charged forward, however, and rejected its Zoning Committee’s recommendation to reject the site plan; this vote was 5-7. Finally, commissioners voted 7-5 to approve the site plan. The site plan includes dozens of conditions the school must meet to receive building permits. Among these conditions: the three zoning variances -- a 3.1-foot variance on height, a 1 percent variance on lot coverage, and a 34-space parking variance. That is the vote in which the city attorney’s office later said the site plan was “not properly approved.”

On Feb. 8, commissioners voted 9-2 against reconsidering votes they had taken on Jan. 25. The apparent result of the Feb. 8 vote is what commission chair Betsy Reveal called a “non-decision.” That allows the school's site plan and variance requests to be approved automatically under "operation of law," following a state law commonly referred to as 15.99.

Site plan creates conditions, commitments
The Jan. 17 site plan -- which is the most recent one available publicly -- places conditions on the school involving parking, traffic, and operations -- items the school, residents, and the community council have been trying to resolve for years. These conditions include placing crossing guards at Como and Oxford; directing staff and parents not to park on Como Ave.; and adopting tactics to reduce vehicle traffic, such as promoting use of Metro Transit by staff and students, carpooling by staff and families, and increasing the number of buses for pupils.

In addition, the school agreed to implement future changes if ordered to do so by the city’s Department of Public Works. These possibilities include directing staff and parents not to park on additional residential streets near the school, and implementing a staggered release time at the end of the school day. The city, for its part, says it will continue tweaking signal timing at Lexington and Como Ave., add a marked crosswalk across Como Ave. at Oxford, and examine other congestion issues, including expanding areas around the school where parking is not permitted at certain times of the day.

If the Jan. 17 site plan is not the one that takes effect, it is not clear how many -- if any -- of these conditions and commitments will apply.

Schedule set for historic designation vote
Meanwhile, the City Council has penciled in a timeline to decide whether or not to grant local historic designation to the former St. Andrew's church building. The City Council is scheduled to begin deliberations on March 6; that would mean a public hearing on Wednesday March 20, leading to a City Council vote on March 27.

Local historic designation could block the school's plans to demolish the building in order to make room for its building addition. The addition would contain more classroom, office, and academic space, plus a new new gymnasium and cafeteria. The school intends to tear down the former church building – which it now uses as its aula – and begin construction by June, after the current academic year ends.

The city's Heritage Preservation Commission is recommending historic designation, which is being pursued by the local group Save Historic St. Andrew's. German Immersion School opposes the historic designation.

Originally published Jan. 25; most recently updated Feb. 15, 2019.

(C) 2019 Como Community Council.

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