Fighting a phantom neighborhood group

Scott Weber faced tearing down his new deck after the city gave him a permit, then changed its mind.

Then a murky "neighborhood group" helped apply more pressure.

Scott Weber just wanted a place where he could grill burgers and wieners behind his home. So he did what most folks would do: he went to the city for a permit to build a deck, got one, and began construction. That’s when he became the eye of a small hurricane blowing through the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood.

By the time the storm had dissipated, Weber had spent a year wrangling with city bureaucrats and his neighbors. His building permit was rescinded, and he faced tearing down the deck he had just built. He went through several public hearings this summer, paid a consultant to work for months on a rezoning application and took on two neighborhood groups — one of which has "no membership," exists outside of his neighborhood, yet has the city’s imprimatur to review residential development.

Fear factor Weber’s disputes began with the deck he built last fall at 2601 Sunset Blvd., a 19-unit apartment building he owns and calls home.

After the city rescinded the deck permit just three weeks after granting it, Weber hired Michael McLaughlin, a business-association management consultant. McLaughlin said because the deck was finished, Weber faced three choices: tear it down, get city permission to allow the deck as an exception to its zoning, or get the property rezoned so zoning laws wouldn’t prohibit the deck. Weber chose the latter.

Weber was in trouble because his multi-unit property is zoned "R1" — a classification for single family homes. The City Planning Department recommended that the City Council deny upzoning Weber’s property to the multi-unit "R5" because it conflicted with the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan. The plan says that multi-unit developments should not encroach in areas already zoned R1.

However, Weber’s building had existed since 1961, before the area’s zoning was established. Only his deck was new.

McLaughlin said the request to upzone to R5 zoning — a multi-unit classification — "is strictly to gain legal, conforming status" that would permit him to add amenities, such as decks, that other apartment owners can. McLaughlin said Weber had "no plans to add units" to the 19-unit building.

Some neighbors fear Weber’s not telling the whole truth about that.

Chad Larsen, chairperson of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) said, "The fear factor [is] that in our neighborhood, there have been projects and properties that have been lower-density uses that have been converted to high-rises," increasing traffic and noise.

Larsen cited the Calhoun Beach Club Apartments, 2900 Thomas Ave. S., and Lake Point Condominiums, 2950 Dean Pkwy. "Both of those were lower-density uses that had been rezoned… and up went these large structures," Larsen said. "It’s one of those things where you’re never sure what can happen."

No members allowed Larsen heads a group that’s been around for years, receives public Neighborhood Revitalization Project funding, and has hundreds of members — all of which contrasts with the South Cedar Lake Neighbors Association (SCLNA), a self-proclaimed group that actively fought Weber’s plans.

SCLNA sent dozens of informational packets to neighbors surrounding Weber’s property. The packets, which Larsen said were "sometimes misleading," were dropped off in the days prior to a hearing in front of the city’s Planning Commission in late July. They consisted of an unsigned letter outlining SCLNA’s history, a copy of the city’s notice of the zoning code violation to Weber, and a letter (which CIDNA’s Larsen called "inflammatory") from Ernst Ibs, a CIDNA member, and Ed Bell, a realtor and developer who’s an SCLNA member. The letter claimed Weber had built "an illegal deck" on his property.

Oddly enough, Weber’s property sits outside of SCLNA’s self-designated boundaries that its own construction guidelines define as "an area bounded by Sunset on the north, Depot Street on the east, the railway right of way on the southeast, Lake Street on the south and mid-block between Chowen and Drew Avenues on the west."

Despite the packet’s SCLNA material, Helen Rubenstein, who said she helped found the group four years ago, said "South Cedar Lake Neighbors has not taken any official position on" Weber’s rezoning, though she personally opposed it.

She also said SCLNA has no leadership or scheduled meetings and is "so loosely organized that there’s no way for us to take a vote or anything like that. … It’s whoever happens to show up when we have a meeting or when we contact people about an issue. There really isn’t a specific membership."

Bell cited CIDNA ties to give SCLNA legitimacy. "We’re a subcommittee of CIDNA, and CIDNA is opposed to it [Weber’s rezoning]," he said.

CIDNA Chair Larsen said that’s untrue.

"The South Cedar Lake Neighbors Association — which is not an association, so it’s an improper acronym — was a group of residents that happened to be within the Cedar-Dean-Isles boundaries," he said. "They called themselves something they probably shouldn’t have called themselves, which is an association…it’s like a book club."

Larsen said there’s "no official connection" between the two groups.

In fact, CIDNA took the trouble at a board meeting in 2000 to issue a clarification stating that "SCLNA is not a committee of CIDNA."

Laying down the law Even separate from CIDNA, SCLNA has been influential in the neighborhood. A city endorsement has helped.

In March 2000, SCLNA created voluntary construction guidelines. The guidelines — distributed by the city — suggest, among a half-dozen items, that anyone planning on remodeling or building in the neighborhood first submit plans to SCLNA.

Said Rubenstein, "The philosophy behind SCLNA is that we adopted design guidelines; anyone who gets a [construction] permit gets a copy of the guidelines and is asked to go through a review process with us. The neighborhood should be involved with any development that went on with that particular piece of property so that we would have a chance to weigh in at least on whatever’s going to be done with it."

The city hands them out in SCLNA’s "neighborhood," with the support of the area’s Councilmember, Lisa Goodman (7th Ward).

Steve Poor, a city zoning supervisor, said, "The councilmember asked us to give ’em out to people doing construction or have building permits in that area."

Bell said Goodman helped form SCLNA.

Goodman disputes that. "I didn’t create it, I’m not on the board of it, I don’t know if there is a board of it, I don’t know a lot about it," she said animatedly. "My job is to assist the neighbors in achieving their goals. And as it pertains to assisting the neighbors and achieving their goals to do this South Cedar Lake Neighborhood thing, I guess it would be correct to say I assisted that."

Goodman said the construction guidelines she worked on with SCLNA have been "a good thing in the neighborhood."

However, Weber’s property is east of SCLNA’s boundaries.

"So what?" Goodman said. "Any resident can come speak in favor of or against a zoning application."

Getting down with upzoning It may seem strange that the city would ask residents to submit development plans to a group that admits it has no membership or elections. Home remodelers who are hyperaware of city rules might view the request as more of a demand, although Poor said the rules are so toothless as to be meaningless.

"It’s strictly voluntary, is the problem. There’s no teeth in ’em. So I don’t know if anybody actually calls Helen Rubenstein before obtaining a building permit or not," Poor said.

"And why would they, right? To be told, ‘No, please do something different?’" he added. "Trust me. They don’t [call Rubenstein]."

However, Poor said he understands why CIDNA neighbors fear upzoning requests such as Weber’s.

"Once they [the owners of a property] get the underlying rights, they could rip that building down and build something else potentially. And it’s awfully valuable land. It’s way more valuable than what’s sitting there now," he said.

McLaughlin insists there was never real reason for neighbors to worry.

"[Weber] doesn’t have any plans to tear down the building and build something larger," McLaughlin said. "He’s going to continue to put money into the property. He’s made this his home. Ultimately, he wants Cedar Beach Apartments to be a marquee property that people will hopefully know and recognize."

However well-meant, such promises are as toothless as SCLNA’s guidelines. If the city grants the upzoning, it would be unable to restrict Weber’s (or a future buyer’s) right to add up to six apartments to his building.

Now that Weber has lost his upzoning bid, McLaughlin is philosophical.

"We say on the one hand, when we’re talking in the abstract, ‘We want higher density, we want more people living here, we want the tax base, we want all these people who will shop at our businesses’ and so forth…on the other hand, when it comes down to specific projects, there always seems to be some reason not to support that one [project]," he said.

Decked, but still standing Although CIDNA also opposed Weber’s efforts, a trace of bitterness darkens McLaughlin’s voice when he discusses SCLNA.

"This thing organizes ostensibly to rally people to oppose something, yet when you try to respond to it, it’s like trying to respond to smoke. There’s nothing there. It’s smoke and mirrors and trickery."

Goodman says there’s more to the story. "Let’s clarify. This is about Michael McLaughlin being paid by Scott Weber to come up and lobby people on things they shouldn’t even have been lobbying on, and then losing and then pitching their story as some big Ed Bell conspiracy," she said.

"I’m no big fan of Ed Bell, let me assure you. But the reality is the Planning Commission voted against this, the staff recommended against it, the neighborhood association took a position against it…so basically, [Weber and McLaughlin] can’t find any legitimate reason to be upset about it, so the issue is some front-organization of Ed Bell."

Bell said, "I just don’t want to be caught in slander. I’m just a neighborhood member. I don’t believe you guys [the Southwest Journal] are not biased."

McLaughlin said Weber will next apply for an expansion of a legal nonconforming use (basically, an exception to existing single-family zoning). After all of the windy confrontations in Cedar-Isles-Dean over Weber’s property, some of the angst in the neighborhood may be waning. In other words, McLaughlin said, "there seems to be consensus among most involved that Scott Weber should be able to keep the deck."