SSP council: pave paradise, but limit the cars

If you don’t understand how someone can get riled up over a parking lot, just ask the business that owns it. Or the city of South St. Paul. Or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

All three entities have an opinion about the future of a used car sales lot on the 1400 block Concord Street. The dispute stems from a request by the property owner, Inver Grove Heights Storage and Rental, to double the capacity of the lot used by its tenant, Footh Automotive.

Expanding the lot isn’t a problem for the city, but there are concerns that the applicant’s intended number of parking spots - up to 60 from the current number of 31 - would overcrowd the space and open the door for slipping even more vehicles on the lot.

Even within the city, views differ on the appropriate number. City staff recommended no more than 50 spots, saying that number gave the applicant a healthy increase in capacity while preserving the city’s ability to regulate the business.

“We felt that 50 was a better number in terms of having more space,” City Planner Peter Hellegers told the council. “Typically, what we see in any of these sales uses is they get up to that number and then they tend to go, ‘How many can we have in here at any point in time beyond that?’ And that’s not a swipe at any particular dealer, that’s just the way these things tend to work.”

The planning commission, however, voted 4-3 to recommend a total capacity of 55. The city council went a step further in its Sept. 16 meeting, granting a 55-spot lot with the possibility of raising the number to 60 after a six-month review.

The DNR concerns, on the other hand, are precisely opposite of the city’s: lot capacity is not an issue, but the size and impact of the new lot size are because the property lies along a bluff within the Mississippi National River Recreation Area. New DNR regulations slated for next year could give the department more control of the situation; if the project starts this year, however, the property owner would only be required to conduct a slope stability test before expanding the lot.

Close enough is not enough

Despite the opinion of some council members that a 55-car lot that could expand to 60 was a generous compromise, Larry Koland, an owner of Inver Grove Heights Storage who attended the Sept. 16 meeting, said the limitations lowered the odds that his business would invest in the prospect.

“A large expansion is very expensive,” Koland said. “We’re investing back into to this location - something people haven’t done in South Concord for years. We’re trying to clean it up and make it look very nice.”

Koland said the council’s proposal of 55 cars to start with the possibility of 60 after later review wasn’t necessarily concrete enough to embark on what he estimated to be a $100,000 project.

“I’m open to suggestions, but I just don’t know that’s the one we’re looking for today,” Koland said. “I need to know what our future holds before we can commit to doing this whole project.”

The council seemed to be in little mood for bartering, however. After a period of back-and-forth with neither side willing to budge, Council member Chris Lehmann brought the issue to a head.

“If it’s all or nothing for you, that’s fine,” Lehmann said. “I could support the 55 with the six months, but I can’t support the 60. I don’t want to waste your time or our time if that’s what you want — if that’s what it is, let us know.”

Council member Tom Seaberg took Lehmann’s push for resolution a step farther by moving the compromise to a vote. Before making the motion, Seaberg reiterated the council’s perspective to Koland.

“When you sell in five to 10 years ... we’re stuck with whoever you leave us with,” Seaberg said. “That’s why we’re serious about this. I think 55 is more than fair, and if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine — you’re a big boy, don’t do it.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the conditional use permit and variance for 55 cars. If Inver Grove Heights Storage ultimately opts to move ahead with the lot expansion, it will also be required to construct new retaining walls in addition to slope impact tests.

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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