The Montessori School of Brainerd is one step closer to gaining approval to operate a satellite learning facility on North Seventh Street, much to the delight of parents and the dismay of neighbors.

The Brainerd Planning Commission unanimously approved a conditional use permit Wednesday, July 21, for James and April Erfurth — owners of the Montessori school — to operate a house at 310 N. Seventh St. as a satellite location for older elementary-aged students, sending the measure on to the city council for a decision. The house operated as such during the past school year, which drew concerns from some neighbors about traffic and neighborhood preservation, and prompted the conditional use permit application.

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In a single-family residential neighborhood like north Brainerd, schools are allowed as a permitted use under the city’s zoning code. Conditions set under the Erfurths’ permit application mandate the site must:

  • Be landscaped in accordance with the zoning code with a 6-foot high fence or landscaped screen providing 80% year-round opacity. The Erfurths have already applied for a permit to construct a 6-foot tall privacy fence to screen the yard from the street and from the neighboring property to the north.

  • Offer adequate off-street parking. The site has enough parking in the alley for staff needs.

  • Have emergency vehicle access. The site has access from North Seventh Street and the alley, which is sufficient for the lot size.

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Neighbor concerns

Four north Brainerd residents spoke against the measure during Wednesday’s public hearing, with the major concern regarding maintaining the character of the historic residential neighborhood.

“It’s a commercial business application that wants to place itself in the middle of Brainerd’s historic longest-term and traditional neighborhood, in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the city,” said Pam Stock, who lives across the street from the property in question.

Stock quoted the city’s comprehensive plan, which encourages the preservation of existing homes and prioritizes neighborhood safety.

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“For us in our neighborhood, we feel that taking this house out of being a residential unit is not fitting in with what the comprehensive plan is. It's no longer going to be a house and to us it ignores the traditional housing needs in our community,” Stock said, noting she was under the impression the applicants would use the property to live in and offer after-school tutoring services, which she found was not the case last year.

Stock asked if granting the permit meant the house could no longer be used as a house in the future and worried about property values if that were the case. Community Development Director David Chanski said later in the meeting the house would still be able to operate as a house under future owners, as the Erfurths do not plan to renovate it for another use. If the conditional use permit were granted, though, the next owners could continue operating the building in the same way as the Erfurths.

Mark Brusseau, who lives kitty-corner from the property, shared Stock’s concerns and also worried about traffic on North Seventh Street, which he said has become a thoroughfare.

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“To take and literally destroy our traditional neighborhood, which the city says they want to protect, I have a hard time agreeing with that,” he said. “And I think if you were in our shoes, you wouldn’t want it in your backyard either.”

Al Gardner, who also lives across the street from the property, said the destruction of the neighborhood because of this school does not come in the traditional sense but in the financial integrity sense. He as a homeowner pays the same property taxes as the Erfurths, who are operating a business, which Gardner said does not seem fair.

Juniper Street resident Kathleen Maloney Hermerding said those in north Brainerd are very protective of their neighborhood. While she said the Erfurths are lovely people and this is nothing against them, she does not think this house is the right place for a business.

Community members filled Brainerd City Hall council chambers Wednesday, July 21, 2021, when the planning commission considered a conditional use permit for Montessori School of Brainerd owners James and April Erfurth to operate a house at 310 N. Seventh St. as a satellite location for their school. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Community members filled Brainerd City Hall council chambers Wednesday, July 21, 2021, when the planning commission considered a conditional use permit for Montessori School of Brainerd owners James and April Erfurth to operate a house at 310 N. Seventh St. as a satellite location for their school. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Supporting the school

Four parents and three students spoke in favor of the permit, praising the educational opportunities the Erfurths offer.

“I do not agree with what some of the other people have to say,” student Levi Himley said. “We, as students, have learned a lot about what the house has gone through and how it can serve as a house and school as well.”

Parent Jessica Sampson said the school is not really a commercial business but a family-run, family-based organization with respectful kids under the care of the Erfurths, who she said are extremely good people. A day care, she said, which is also allowed in an R-1 district, would likely bring more commotion to the neighborhood.

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Parent Shannon Wussow said the location provides a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about the historic properties in Brainerd and become aware of what the city has to offer.

The Montessori school also provided a need during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wussow said, in that it offered supervised educational services to students while their parents offered critical services throughout the community.

“Given the pick of multiple neighbors, I would choose them over many others, and I have no doubt that the Erfurths and the students would strive to be superb neighbors and would welcome any open communication with the neighbors that are in the neighborhood,” she said.

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An Aitkin resident whose children attend the Montessori school emphasized how much of a draw the school is to people even outside of Brainerd, and parent Jordan Benson said the school has offered a safe, loving environment to students during unstable times.

“My hope is that the city can see the vitality that these children bring to the community, the youth,” Benson said. “And more than that, my hope is that the city can see this as an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to not only educate our kids but provide them with … more of a foundation than I think a traditional school can provide.”

In response to some of the concerns raised, the Erfurths said they only have a maximum of about 10-12 students in the building at a time and plan to preserve the old, traditional style of the house. They needed extra space during the pandemic, April Erfurth said, and thought the house was a beautiful option.

Commissioner thoughts

Planning commissioners ultimately agreed neighborhoods are the best places for schools.

“A building filled with teachers and students seems exactly like it should be in an R-1 zone. In fact, if you were standing before me asking to be in a business district, I’d be trying to encourage you to think about finding a way into a neighborhood. It just seems like a natural fit to me,” commission member Kevin Yeager said.

As a north Brainerd resident himself, Yeager said he would love to have the Montessori school as a neighbor.

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Commissioner Don Gorham, who grew up in north Brainerd, agreed with Yeager and cautioned against elevating one neighborhood, like north Brainerd, above another in terms of importance to the city. Every neighborhood, he said, will have mixed uses.

Commissioner Matthew Kallroos said keeping the house in its current condition is important, while Tad Erickson — city council liaison to the planning commission — said there seems to be an increased demand for educational settings like the Montessori school.

He applauded those who read the city’s comprehensive plan and used it to inform their opinions but also noted the plan encourages transforming historic sites to serve today’s contemporary needs through adaptive reuse.

“And I think this is a perfect example of that goal,” Erickson said.

Commissioner Theresa Woodward agreed residential neighborhoods are the best place for schools and said the Montessori school has been a huge benefit to the community.

Commission Chair Mike Duval said he is sensitive to the concerns of neighbors surrounding the loss of a house, especially as increasing housing options is a goal of the comprehensive plan.

However, the house in question could still be used as a house in the future, Duval said. The permit is just creating a temporary change in use.

With the planning commission’s recommendation to approve of the permit, the measure will then go on to the city council for a decision. The council’s next meeting is at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.