Zoned out

Should a neighborhood group recommend for or against big development deals? Fulton’s board says no — and disbands its own Zoning Committee to prove it.

Neighborhood board meetings tend to be quiet, polite affairs involving long, earnest discussions of how to improve schools, sidewalks, traffic, etc., interspersed with occasional bits of gossip and neighborhood news.

Once in awhile, though, Minnesota Nice melts and temperatures rise. It felt like a hot August night at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Fulton Neighborhood Association (FNA), where the board voted to fire its own Zoning Committee for what one board member said was a "clear, malicious intent to harm the board."

FNA board members were irked that Zoning Committee members had written a letter to the city’s Planning Commission opposing a proposed four-unit rowhouse project at West 50th Street and York Avenue. The FNA board had voted in December to take no position on the matter, even though neighborhood boards can recommend the city support or oppose such projects.

At the February meeting, several FNA board members mentioned the last line in the four-page letter: "We respect the board’s decision but believe that the Zoning Committee of Fulton has the responsibility to represent the neighborhood and deserves the right to be heard."

FNA’s action underscores a pair of parallel philosophical decisions all neighborhood groups face: Who are we to make recommendations on major projects? And, framed another way: Who are we to keep quiet when major projects are proposed for our neighborhood?

Zoning deviants

FNA board member John Finlayson was most vocal at the FNA meeting about the Zoning group’s transgression, saying they displayed malice by writing the letter, but also declaring some committee members possessed "deviant values" and had "never met a large [development] project they didn’t hate."

FNA Chair Pat Bogusz said later, "John does speak in hyperbole at times."

Finlayson made the ultimately successful motion to disband the Zoning Committee.

He said that historically, the board has been willing to take positions on small projects, such as garage expansions, but passed on larger, more complex projects brought before it.

"Essentially, we’re being asked to make a recommendation either opposing or not opposing on a layman’s opinion without the full information that the Planning Commission members are going to get," he said. "So we simply opted out. We felt it would save us a lot of time and bother."

FNA board member Tom Broder agrees and also voted to disband the Zoning Committee. "It’s way beyond our capabilities to go ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on the fine points of a project. God, I don’t want to get in the middle of that thing. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a lot of money involved for parties, both pro and con."

Joe Borman is an attorney who joined the board last fall after having lived in the neighborhood for two years. He’d been on a neighborhood board in St. Paul before moving to Southwest. "We took positions on everything," he said. "We had a lot of heated zoning issues, but here I’m feeling it’s a whole different approach."

It’s one that Borman questions. "What’s the purpose of us even going once a month to meet if we’re not going to take a position on issues that affect the neighborhood?"

Bogusz said she wants the board to take positions on zoning matters but agreed that the Zoning Committee had overstepped its bounds. She had urged the board to talk to the Zoning volunteers about the infraction, rather than disband it, but Finlayson’s motion prevailed.

In the beginning

Barbara Harman, a dismissed Zoning member and former FNA president, was there at the group’s founding in the early 1990s. "Everything started in my living room," she said. "Our mission was to represent the neighbors, whatever their concerns were. This board — not all of them, but there are a few there — just do not want to do that."

She added, "They do not want to listen to the neighborhood, and they’re not representing the neighborhood, and this is wrong."

FNA board member and now-former Zoning Committee member Tom Steele agrees. He said the neighbors told the committee in hearings that they didn’t want the increased traffic and housing density that the project would bring to Fulton.

Harman, a Realtor, said Finlayson was also wrong about committee members hating all large projects, noting they approved the Pinehurst retail/office development, 4999 France Ave. S.

Broder said Steele and Harman "are not impartial observers. They’re acolytes for a position. They can be acolytes for the position and give it all the support they want, but they can’t do it under the guise of the Zoning subcommittee of the Fulton neighborhood and try to send it downtown to say that’s got the endorsement of the neighborhood board. It’s precisely against what the board had said."

High opinion of opinions

At the February FNA meeting, Finlayson also told board members and the small audience that there was little reason for neighborhood groups to opine about rezonings and similar matters because the Planning Commission isn’t interested in what the groups have to say.

Judith Martin, chair of the Minneapolis Planning Commission, said, "I’m disturbed that people think that we don’t care what people have to say. We do care, but it’s one of many things that we take into account in whatever kind of judgment or recommendation that we make."

Unlike neighborhood groups, Martin said that the Planning Commission is required to adhere to zoning codes and the city’s Comprehensive Plan as their highest priorities in making recommendations to the City Council.

However, the Planning Commission still has plenty of discretion, she added. Projects such as apartment buildings, condos and businesses "clearly have a high level of interest to neighborhood groups, and on those things, we do pay a fairly substantial amount of attention to what a neighborhood group’s opinion is."

From here to where?

When the FNA disbanded its Zoning Committee, it agreed to allow former members to reapply to be part of a reconstituted committee.

Borman said, "It’s frustrating to me, especially when they say ‘Let’s disband the Zoning Committee, but the people can feel free to reapply.’ I mean, what’s up with that? That’s ridiculous. It’s so difficult to get volunteers who are willing to do their job anyway, why slap them in the face?"

At the February meeting, the board directed its Neighborhood Revitalization Program coordinator to include a request in the Fulton newsletter for new Zoning Committee volunteers, leaving out any explanation of what had happened to the disbanded committee.

Bogusz said, "It is a mixed message. … We couldn’t not do it [disband the committee] out of fear that something bad would come of it. We had to do something to react to what was a serious matter."

Harman said she wouldn’t reapply to be a Zoning Committee member. Instead, she said she and others on the committee would carry on their work independently, holding meetings on proposed neighborhood projects without the FNA imprimatur.

"We have been reaching out to the board: ‘Please listen to the neighborhood, please listen,’ and they refuse to listen," she said. "We could reapply if we wanted to be obedient and respectful to the board. Well, they have not been respectful to us nor the neighborhood.

"We’re going to act independently. We’ve decided we can focus our efforts working outside that current power structure. This should never have happened," she said.