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Our Opinion: Proposed off-street parking moratorium has merit

At first glance, the off-street parking moratorium proposed the Brainerd Planning Commission Oct. 17 seemed like an overreach.

But a month later, with more information in hand and the realization that much more information appears to be needed for and from all parties involved, we support the planning commission's recommendation as it would allow for clarity on a host of issues.

The commission's recommendation to the Brainerd City Council—yet to be acted upon by that body—is to adopt a moratorium on the demolition of structurally sound buildings for the purpose of off-street parking in certain residential and business districts.

The impetus behind the moratorium was the Brainerd School District's discussion of acquiring 27 properties around Brainerd High School and Lowell, Garfield and Harrison elementary schools to be used as parking lots.

Our initial concern was a moratorium, in spirit if not in word directed at the school district, could hinder other development opportunities within the city of Brainerd. But as city and school district officials have discussed the issue further there appears to be confusion on many sides. It would seem prudent for a moratorium to allow more questions to be asked and more information to be presented—not just to the members of the governing bodies but to the public at large. Public involvement needs to be a priority at all stages.

While safety and security were indeed an important part of the district's approved referendum, the parking plan being discussed now—specifically the potential of acquiring select properties through eminent domain—was not. If it were, it more than likely would have changed a few perceptions about the proposed building project.

The idea of property acquisition wasn't specifically addressed in 2017 listening sessions prior to the referendum but it was addressed in the Comprehensive Long Range Facilities Plan final draft, released in 2016. For each of the schools in question, that document noted expansion opportunities were possible with property acquisition. In the case of Lowell Elementary, it was specifically noted in the plan that expansion options are limited without acquiring land for additional parking.

Still, we'd ask the school district to move forward on their plan with more deliberation and community involvement. Everyone needs to be on the same page going forward.

The school district for years has been purchasing and banking properties when they come on the market. The proposal to acquire the 27 properties is not the same process, and should be open to more public vetting because of the potential effect it could have on a number of people—not only the property owners but the taxpaying public as well.

Setting a moratorium, even if only for a brief time, would allow the city, the school district and the public to be better informed about what is planned and where there are concerns. We all want to see the district's building projects done the right way.

It has been debated whether more off-street parking is a key to keeping children safe. What can't be debated is that the school district's off-street parking plans would change the neighborhoods around those schools.

For that reason, more time, consideration and public discourse must be given to make sure that every decision made is done so with full transparency and as much understanding as possible.

If the moratorium is enacted, we hope the city council would allow the school district to move forward with Lincoln Education Center. The plans to demolish that building and use that space for parking were explicit in information regarding the referendum, which voters approved.

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