Marquette Council, businesses discuss litigation, zoning changes
By Audrey Posten
The Marquette City Council, business owners and residents gathered at a special meeting on Oct. 24 to discuss the Marquette Board of Adjustment’s (BOA) decision to grant a variance to the Luana Savings Bank for 118 and 120 North St. The variance would allow the property to be sold as residential rather than commercial, going against the city code. Following the Oct. 15 regular city council meeting, the council had requested help from the business owners in deciding if the city should pursue litigation against the BOA over its decision.
Opening the meeting, Mayor Norma Mason cited a section from the city’s zoning regulations that said, “When a nonconforming use of a structure, or structure and premises in combination, is discontinued for 12 consecutive months or for 18 months during any two-year period, the structure thereafter shall not be used except in conformance with the regulations of the district in which it is located.” 118 and 120 North St. are located next to the post office in the downtown district, which is zoned for commercial use.
“This is what brought the whole thing to a head,” Mason said to the audience. “Now we have to make a decision on this district and we need your input.”
Attorney Jim Garrett said if the city chose to file a petition in district court asking the court to review and reverse the BOA decision, the odds would be in favor of the city, as the city code prohibits the BOA from granting a variance that permits a use the city does not permit.
“Even if the odds were not in your favor, at least you’d have an answer as to whether this is something the BOA can do,” he said. “Then you could adjust the ordinance accordingly.”
Cindy Halvorson, of Eagles Landing Winery, began the audience discussion by asking the council members what tourists had said to them about Marquette.
“They ask, ‘Where are all the businesses?’” said councilman Tracy Melver.
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” Halvorson responded. “They said this is a charming little river town where homes and businesses are intermingled. I know you’re trying to make it grow, so if they want it to be residential, then let it be. By making it all commercial, there won’t be homes and businesses side by side.”
Councilman Jason Winter said that, while he also appreciated Marquette’s status as a cottage community, its unique set-up is what makes the decision so difficult.
“Marquette’s never going to have the storefronts like McGregor,” he said, “but can we make it to allow anything and everything because it’s unique? I see one side and I see the other. It’s just a mess we have to get straightened out.”
Jay Halvorson, also of Eagles Landing Winery, challenged the council to come up with business ideas for the location.
“There are few things you could do there,” he said, mentioning businesses like an office, gift shop or chiropractor. “Could anyone really buy that house and turn it around, sell a product, make enough money for a year and actually make a go? I couldn’t.”
Councilwoman Rinda Ferguson defended the location’s business appeal.
“If the person buying it has some business sense, I think they’ll see it’s a prime opportunity,” she said.
Many meeting attendees urged the city not to pursue litigation. In a letter to the council, John Ries, of Schoolhouse Mall Antiques, said it would be “non-productive and damaging” to the community. Jay Halvorson said he thought the city has been involved in too many lawsuits and that, as a result, it “comes across as mean.” Resident Larry Breuer also advised against it, stating that “lawsuits kill business.” Cindy Halvorson mentioned that litigation could stop people from getting involved on city boards.
“It’s a volunteer board,” she said. “It’s hard to get volunteers. If you’re not supporting what they’re doing, what does that say to the people and businesses?”
Mason said it was not the council’s intent to attack the BOA.
“We’re not out to get them,” she said. “We just want to know what to do.”
“We should take what they say into consideration,” added Melver. “We should back our boards. I still have a hard time with this. I’m on the fence because part of the establishment was a business.”
BOA Chair Bob Ruzek said the location’s history makes for an impractical situation and admitted that the properties should probably have been zoned separately. He said the BOA made its decision in order to get the property sold.
“Rather than let it sit empty for five to 10 years, this gives the bank an opportunity to sell it as residential, but it can still be sold commercial,” he said. “This could be a real asset, but not if it sits empty for years.
He further added, “You take each case individually. There are a lot of houses out here that won’t work commercially, so it could be adjusted in situations like this. That’s why it’s called the BOA. We’ve worked well with the council for years. All we want to do is work with everyone.”
With all the talk, both Melver and Ferguson questioned if the residents wanted to do away with zoning and the city’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in April 2006. The plan lists a number of economic development goals, including attracting businesses and promoting and expanding existing businesses.
Jay Halvorson suggested creating a mixed use district of both commercial and residential dwellings. Garrett said an option like that would be feasible.
Phil Reisweber, of Barr House Antiques, said the comprehensive plan should be re-evaluated. He also said it should be considered a plan, not an enforcement.
“It was a mistake. I was on that committee [that developed it] and I forgot about it,” he said. “It needs to be changed and needs to grow. Change isn’t bad if it’s positive and meeting the needs of the community.”
Ferguson defended the council’s determination to stick to the rules.
“We’re following guidelines that were put in place before we were even in office,” she said.
“Because people let things slide for so long, it makes it harder for us,” Melver added. “We have to go by the comprehensive plan and the ordinances. If other people would have followed that, we’d have been a lot better off. We wouldn’t be sitting here tonight.”
At the end of the meeting, Mason said the council would not make a decision that night, but was simply seeking input.
“We’ll take that input as good feedback,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do. When we start using the code, we find flaws, but then we can treat people consistently.”