Land development code public hearing

The LDC, like the Tour de France, is an endurance race

The Land Development Code is almost here.  The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Thursday, July 7, at 7 pm in the Council Chambers before sending their recommendation to the Council for adoption of the new code.

The Planning Commission has devoted an amazing amount of time and effort to this project to craft regulations which are specific to Northfield.   The Planning Commission has worked with the Chamber of Commerce on both commercial and residential regulations, with both colleges on the regulations affecting their campuses and the relation of the campuses to their surrounding neighborhoods, and held public meetings and information sessions. Thank you – it is more than we should ask of our volunteers, but you demanded that the revision be done and I applaud your efforts.

Sandy Bremer, the Community Development administrative assistant, should also be given a stirring round of applause for tracking all the changes and updating the draft over this time.  Without her skill and diligence, this could not have happened.  Thanks, Sandy!

Thanks, too, to all the developers, college staff, and citizens who offered their time and expertise.  It is a better document for your effort.


Complete green streets

“Complete Streets” have been identified as a Council goal, although as yet our streets, and especially our street planning and design, are a long way from being complete.  “Complete” means streets should be designed to serve not only cars, but bicycles and pedestrians, too.  This means “streets” includes sidewalks, bike lanes, and more thoughtfully designed intersections.

Even though Northfield is still at the beginning of its work on completing streets, we are fortunate to have local role models to guide our development.  Check out the Strib’s story about metro area cities which are narrowing streets  to permit adequate space for bicycles as well as traffic calming (not to mention trees – see the Plum Street discussion)

The state legislature passed a Complete Streets law last year requiring MNDoT to adopt a complete streets policy and encouraging local adoption so we’re getting direction from above.

Some people think planning for bicycles and pedestrians is a frilly sort of amenity – nice, but not if it costs more or is inconvenient.   The great thing is, it costs less.  Smart growth, as I have been saying all along, is not just about how things look, but about how a town functions and how we pay for it.

In the Star Tribune story, North St Paul (see their “Living Streets” manual, too) estimates narrowing a 30 foot wide residential street to 22 feet (yes, 22 feet!) saves 15% in paving and will cut maintenance by 25% or about $1,000 per mile per year.   Since Northfield’s community survey identified street condition as a problem and the Council has a goal to reduce the number of miles of streets in poor condition, narrowing streets would help us pay for improving our overall transportation network.

What government can do

Empowering the private sector

When I was a Humphrey Public Policy Fellow, I worked with a group of fellow Fellows to develop a game, or at least a decision-making strategy, for when government should undertake programs and when the private sector would be more effective.  We called it GIGO for “Get in, get out” (of government).   Since then, I’ve considered the question “is this something government should do?” quite frequently, especially now that Northfield is trying to (1) cut its expenses in advance of the loss of LGA, (2) maintain important services and programs, and (3) untangle our economic development strategy.

The narrow “create jobs and increase tax base” model of economic development thinking is one of those areas where I have some serious reservations about what government can do except make the environment as fertile as possible for the private sector to do the creating and increasing without direct government subsidy.   Here’s what ‘job creators’ really need from government according to Scott Burns, founder and CEO of GovDelivery writing at MinnPost.

EDA Evaluation

At the last Council worksession on March 22 (we got a rare week off last week), the Council heard Thomas Clough’s (a consultant to non-profits with Horizon Associates) report on his interviews with EDA, staff and Council members (see the worksession packet).  The purpose and scope of this enterprise:

A. City Council Resolution: “The Council will employ a neutral party to evaluate perceived issues with EDA process and function.  The neutral party will conduct personal interviews with the members of the 2010 EDA, City Council and staff.  The neutral party will report back to the Council at a worksession with findings and recommendations”

B. Exclusions:
1. Not an assessment of whether Northfield should continue to have an Economic development authority
2. Not an assessment of particular economic development policies and plans.
3. Not an assessment of relationships among EDA and partners (NDDC, NEC, etc.).  No interviews with leaders of these organizations.
4. Not an evaluation of particular individuals.

The findings were not a great surprise to me, but I am grateful for the summary of issues and recommendations which help to focus the Council’s next actions.  It really needs to be the Council which acts next to determine whether the Economic Development Authority statutory structure is appropriate for Northfield at this time, what the mission of an economic development group (of whatever structure) would be, and a Council level determination of the goals of economic development spending (and that’s what this is about – spending your tax dollars).  Until the Council acts, the EDA is just on hold.

My one problem with the report was Mr Clough’s characterization of the two economic development viewpoints.  The “standard” view is straightforward – grow jobs and tax base through commercial industrial expansion.  The other he called the “preservation” view which seeks “preserve and enhance Northfield’s distinctive character and quality of life.”  To me, the “preservation” label plays right into the criticism by EDA members that certain Council members would like to see the town “preserved in amber” and Mayor Mary Rossing reinforced that misperception in her March 23 post-meeting KYMN interview by calling it the “no growth” group. Perhaps other interviewees did promote the Little Town that Time Forgot view, but not me.  My issues are where we spend scarce resources and the physical form of growth.  But you can read all about that in my last few posts.

Home matters program gets noticed

The HRA/Three Rivers Community Action ‘s Home Matters program got some publicity in the Minneapolis Fed’s Community Dividend newsletter.  Michele Merxbauer, Northfield’s Housing Manager, notes in the Friday memo the “vital importance of networking, partnership and sheer stubbornness” required for getting this project going.  Many thanks to the stubborn Ms. Merxbauer and the HRA.  Read more about the Home Matters program on their website.

he Minneapolis” Federal Reserve bank is actually the headquarters of the 9th District of the Federal Reserve System coering Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, and 26 counties in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

And, if you haven’t already discovered the wealth of economic-related information – including much for non-economists – at the Minneapolis Fed and the other branches, you should check it out.

Economic development policy questions

No, neither hostile takeover nor fireworks

I applaud my colleague, Erica Zweifel, for adding the discussion item about transferring the powers of the Economic Development Authority to the City Council; it always takes some guts to disturb the status quo and adding the element of surprise by adding it to the agenda at the meeting helped get both the Council’s and the EDA’s attention.  This proposal is also on the Tuesday worksession agenda. (Read the News and Locally Grown coverage, too.)

But why do it? Because the EDA has not presented any clear principles for economic development, has not followed the economic policy planning which has been done, makes decisions in an opaque and unaccountable way and levies your tax dollars to do it.

Having the Council serve as the economic development authority is only one strategy the City might employ to (re)gain control of economic development policy in Northfield, but I’d argue it is also the quickest and easiest way to accomplish this goal in the short term.

1.  Background: The EDA is not like the Planning Commission. The PC is an advisory board (with some decision making authority on variances) with no direct access to financial resources.  So, while the PC has the primary responsibility for drafting/updating the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code, these are both documents presented to the Council for the Council’s review and adoption.  In individual land use decisions, the PC is the body which holds the public hearings and takes public input, then makes a recommendation to the Council.  The EDA, on the other hand, has the power to levy taxes, sell bonds, and spend money.  The EDA has a budget which is approved by the Council annually, but which it can then deploy as it sees fit (See Minn. Stat. 461.091 et. seq. for the statutory details).  Having levy and bonding authority should raise the bar for the EDA in terms of accountability.

2. Transparency and accountability: The EDA changed their meeting structure to shift the bulk of the discussion to subcommittees consisting of no more than three EDA members plus the EDA director; subcommittees operate under the open meeting law threshold of a quorum; meetings are not noticed nor minutes published.   When recommendations do come to the full EDA for action, the rationale behind them is not always clear and the tone of the discussion at the EDA suggests that EDA members themselves are somewhat suspicious about how recommendations are made.

The other more important piece is the policy part. The 1990 enabling resolution for the EDA states these objectives:

LEADERSHIP:   The EDA shall unite the leadership of the concerned groups within the community to develop a clear expression of priorities and programs for economic development.

REGIONAL STRATEGY:   The EDA shall develop a regional strategy for future growth and development that is based on the area’s strengths and assets.

RETENTION:   The EDA shall develop a program to help retain and expand viable existing Northfield businesses by evaluating and addressing their needs.

OUTREACH:   The EDA shall endeavor to attract new commercial and industrial growth that fits Northfield’s goals.

REDEVELOPMENT: The EDA shall encourage and support commercial redevelopment city-wide, with emphasis on the downtown.

FINANCING: The EDA shall become self-supporting.

IMPACT:   The EDA shall take into account the environmental effect, and the housing, schooling and infrastructure needs of commercial and industrial development.

How is the EDA is attempting to fulfill the Northfield Comprehensive Plan (and the Economic Development Plan) with its emphasis on sustainable development, compact growth, and enhancing the small town character of Northfield? Clear expression of priorities and programs?  Redevelopment?  Impact?   These questions are, to me, unaddressed.  When EDA members, Business Park Steering Committee members, and Council members have asked questions like these, there have been no answers and often dismissal of the questions.

3. Strategy: Having the Council take over economic development activities in the short term would allow the Council, the most accountable body, determine how to best manage economic development.  For the longer term, I don’t know that the Council wants the added duties nor does it have the expertise to manage these issues for the long term.  However, the Council can and should weigh in on what the City’s economic principles should be, how the EDA can help accomplish the goals of the Comprehensive Plan, and how dollars should be allocated to address these priorities.

In addition, having eliminated the position of City Planner and approved the early retirement of the Community Development director, this leaves the City with a reorganized department for community and economic development without a clear focus and with limited staff.  Having the Council function as the EDA for a limited period would allow us to finish thinking through reorganization with the Interim City Administrator to better serve Council goals before recreating an EDA to do the majority of the day to day work.

Would you?

I know quite a few people who like to complain about government from the local to the international, but when I have suggested to a few of them that government would improve if more intelligent, principled and thoughtful people like themselves would run for office the reaction is unanimous: “Are you nuts, Betsey?”    or simply “NO!”

Perhaps I am crazy;  David Brook’s column on Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk seems to suggest that the political process chews up good people and spits them out.

But I am a crazy idealist and still believe that having good candidates with multiple viewpoints at the local level will, eventually, trickle up.  The 2011 election is only a few weeks away.  The first thing to do is vote, then think about running for school board, city council, or county commission in 2 years.