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Little Store request to put parking next to highway denied

Acting as the Board of Zoning, Adjustments and Appeals July 23, members of the Cloquet Planning Commission denied a Little Store request to add parking to the store at the intersection of Highway 33 and Doddridge Avenue.

Specifically, Little Store owner Mike McKinney requested a variance to the zoning code requirement for a minimum 10-foot setback for parking lots to allow the store to construct 11 parking spaces adjacent to Highway 33 with zero setback from the highway.

The convenience store owner hoped to make the changes during the next construction season in 2014, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will be making improvements to Highway 33 and its intersection with Big Lake Road and Doddridge Avenue. As part of the improvements, the westerly access to the Little Store on Doddridge Avenue (closest to Highway 33) will be removed and a new entrance/exit will be added off Highway 33 in the northwest corner of the site.

In conjunction with those improvements, McKinney proposed adding 15 parking spaces on the north side (for employees) and 11 spaces on the west side (for customers), adjacent to Highway 33. No parking was proposed for the east side of the building, adjacent to Walgreen's, because the company doesn't own that area. There are eight existing parking spaces in front of the building.

The parking on the north side is not an issue, Cloquet Planning/Zoning administrator Al Cottingham explained, because the proposed parking spots meet the city's required setbacks. But the Little Store officials were asking for a 0-foot setback for the parking on the side adjacent to Highway 33.

Cottingham advised against approving the variance request in his staff report, noting that the Highway 33 Design Standards require "a visual barrier to be installed between parking areas and the public right-of-way." The barrier must consist of landscaping or ornamental fencing (no berms) that is at least 50 percent opaque to a height of 28 to 36 inches all season. The ordinance also requires curbing if parking areas are within 5 feet of a property line.

In addition, he noted that MnDOT officials expressed the following concerns about the proposed parking plan:

+ Landscaping is not allowed in the right-of-way;

+ Storm water runoff from the site needs to be treated prior to reaching a storm-water pipe;

+ How snow storage will be handled without placing it in the right-of-way;

+ Meeting storm-water runoff permit requirements.

Two neighbors attended the meeting and expressed concerns about the plan to add a new entrance/exit from Highway 33 to the Little Store site, because of worries that people will cut across the grass at the back of the site to access the Second Street cul de sac. Board/Commission Chair John Sanders reminded them that the subject under debate was the additional parking spaces only.

After the public hearing, Board members voted to deny the variance request by a vote of 4 to 1, with Commissioner Jesse Berglund dissenting.

Because it was a Board of Zoning, Adjustments and Appeals case, the vote was final and does not proceed to the Cloquet City Council. Cottingham said the decision could only be appealed through the court system.

In other matters, the Planning Commission debated the canvas tents or awnings that residents are using as temporary carports or to shelter boats, etc.

"Technically, those are prohibited in the city's zoning ordinance," Cottingham said, explaining that the commission debated amending the ordinance.

After the discussion, the commission decided to leave the ordinance as it reads, and enforce the zoning law on "a complaint basis," so only when other residents complain about the illegal structures.