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Brainerd City Council: Members hear arguments for, against proposed moratorium

Brainerd City Hall as seen after dark Friday, Nov. 2. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd School District was a hot topic during the open forum portion of the Monday, Nov. 5, Brainerd City Council meeting.

Chuck Marohn, Brainerd resident and planning commission member, spoke to council members about a recommended moratorium the planning commission passed in mid-October. Commission members, at their Oct. 17 meeting, voted to recommend the city council pass a year-long moratorium on demolishing structurally sound buildings in certain business and residential districts for the creation of off-street parking. He asked why the moratorium wasn't on the council's agenda.

The council scheduled a joint meeting with the school board for Thursday, Nov. 8, at the suggestion of school board member Bob Nystrom, so members of both boards could discuss communitywide concerns brought up regarding the district's desire to acquire several properties near Brainerd High School and Harrison, Lowell and Garfield elementary schools, expected to be used for off-street parking. School board members indicated at their last meeting they wanted to have that conversation before the council voted on the moratorium. The joint meeting, however, was postponed to a later date because of a scheduling conflict and has yet to be rescheduled.

When he introduced the moratorium Oct. 17, Marohn said he wanted to take a timeout and look at how the district's endeavors might affect the community long term. He echoed those sentiments Monday night, noting he was speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of the planning commission.

"Things are moving very, very quickly," he said. "And part of the capacity of the city is to essentially say we're going to take a timeout and assess the situation and make sure that what is being done is in the best interest of the community."

Marohn said what he really feared with so much proposed off-street parking is the imposition of suburban-style campuses on urban neighborhood schools. Suburban schools, like Forestview Middle School, he said, often have separate areas for parking, buses, car drop-offs and pedestrians. But BHS and the elementary schools in question are situated differently.

"What we're talking about is an urban neighborhood ... with a certain amount of chaos, a certain amount of messiness, a certain amount of randomness that is inherent with all urban spaces," Marohn said. "When you try to impose essentially a suburban-style development on that type of a grid, what happens is you create, in a sense, a false sense of security, a false sense of safety. It's a misapplication of standards."

Marohn also noted what he believes is already an overabundance of parking spaces at the urban schools, saying they have many vacant spots during non-school hours with very few cars parked on the street.

"These tend to invite crime. They also tend to lower property values," Marohn said. "Let's take a timeout. Let's recognize that both the school district and the city are very, very concerned about the safety of students, the prosperity and health of the neighborhoods and really the well-being of the environment that we're creating for people, not only for people to live in, but for people to go to school, for teachers, for everybody."

Marohn then advised the council not to further delay its decision on the moratorium.

Ed Shaw, whose South Seventh Street law office is on the district's property acquisition list, seconded Marohn's statements, adding he thinks the district will spend more money than it anticipates on property acquisition and noting the difficulty he has had with getting pertinent information from the district, all points he has publicly vocalized in the past.

Brainerd Industrial Center owner Mike Higgins then took a different approach, advocating for school district's plans, though noting he understood Marohn's and Shaw's views as well.

"I just totally disagree with waiting a year or putting this on hold for a year. That's too long. The world doesn't move that slow anymore. Things happen fast," Higgins said. "I can't imagine what that school board's going through trying to figure out how to spend $200 million. It's beyond my comprehension."

Addressing Shaw's concerns about difficulty getting information from the district and other recent community concerns about the school board's transparency, Higgins said he hasn't paid much attention to communication and transparency and frankly doesn't care.

"The school referendum and the school system is a very important part of Brainerd's street credit. We've got a great reputation," he said. "Right now the brand that the city of Brainerd has is going in the right direction, and I do not want to see a war or a fight go on long term. I understand there's got to be negotiation. I get that. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I get it."

Higgins concluded his comments with: "Let's just get it done. I don't want to see it wait a year."

Council member Jan Lambert, council liaison to the planning commission, reminded everyone the moratorium may not have to be in effect for a full year, depending on when a solution can be reached. The council could end it at any time. And the planning commission, Marohn added, intends not to drag on this issue long term. Had the council acted on the moratorium Monday, Marohn said the commission could have started working on a new ordinance at its next meeting and offered a recommendation for the council as early as December.

"The idea was to keep this moving," he said. "I think everybody wants it to keep moving."

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