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Afton Planning Commission denies buffer variances for SavATree company

St. Croix SavATree, a tree, shrub and lawn company, has its sights set on Afton’s industrial zone for its Minneapolis-St. Paul headquarters, but it may be more difficult than anticipated.

Afton Planning Commission denied a variance application, for landscape buffers, from SavATree during its Jan. 4 meeting.

“We have no problem with the company, but we do have ordinances,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Barbara Ronningen said. “We’d like to have you come to our city, we just have to abide by the rules that’s all.”

SavATree also sought a second variance during last week’s meeting, to allow for steel siding as an acceptable exterior building material.

The second variance request was continued until February due to confusion regarding whether or not an ordinance amendment prohibiting steel is in fact valid.

The amendment was approved in 2009, but it was omitted when Chapter 12 of the city’s code, which the ordinance is included in, was codified.

The city’s ordinance previously allowed steel as an acceptable building material.

Planning Commission will make a decision on the second variance after receiving an opinion from the city’s attorney.

SavATree’s proposed headquarters and storage facility would sit on a 5.9-acre site along Hudson Road.

“We really want to be in Afton, but we can only go so far,” said Christopher Muehleck, the Minneapolis-St. Paul district manager for SavATree. “We believe we’ll be a great fit for the community and we’re really trying to make it work.”

However, SavATree has not yet purchased the property. The purchase is pending based on the variance requests.

“They can’t purchase the property because they can’t afford to build the building the way we think they should build one,” Ronningen said.

Last week’s meeting also included a public hearing on the two variance requests.

Not enough buffer

The parcel where the SavATree headquarters is proposed to be located, in the city’s industrial zone, requires a minimum 50-foot landscaped buffer zone between adjacent industrial properties in addition to a 100-foot landscaped buffer zone from adjacent residential parcels.

The buffer must provide 95 percent opacity year round.

Properties to the north, south and west of the 5.9-acre parcel on which SavATree intends to construct its headquarters on are zoned industrial. The land to the east is zoned rural residential.

The variance request that SavATree made asked for a decrease in the buffer zone to the south and east to 25 feet, rather than the required 50 and 100 feet.

In its application, SavATree indicated that a large powerline runs north to south along the eastern boundary of the property, which in turn, SavATree feels, provides a significant open space buffer for the residential property to the east.

“The key, as far as the landscape buffer is concerned, is that we want to reduce that buffer to maximize the use of the existing topography and wetland that is there to provide good screening,” said Christopher Muehleck, the Minneapolis/St. Paul District Manager for SavATree.

“We want to maintain the natural integrity of the property as much as possible.”

Much of Planning Commission’s discussion related to how a powerline is not a sufficient buffer from a residential property.

Additionally, Ronningen informed the applicant that the proposed site in the industrial zone actually allows for looser rules, due to a previous legal settlement with the property’s current owners, FOC LLC.

“This ordinance is actually much looser on this 70-acre parcel than in the rest of the industrial zone,”she said, “so you have that advantage but you’re still asking for more.”

Commissioner Judy Seeberger also referenced state statute, which requires that applicants prove “practical difficulty” when applying for variances.

“I don’t see practical difficulty,” she said. “I understand that from a design perspective it’s difficult to make it work, but a practical difficulty means that you can’t put the property to a reasonable use with the ordinances that we have and that’s just not the case here. While I’m sympathetic to the constraints of your design, I haven’t seen anything that warrants the variance.”

After denying the variance, several commissioners expressed a desire to find a solution with SavATree so that they can still build their facility.

“I hope that you will be able to work with city staff to make this building work,” Ronningen said.

“There has to be compromise and I wish there had been a Plan B,” Commissioner Lucia Wroblewski said.

SavATree’s variance requests will next go to Afton City Council for discussion.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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