GREENWOOD TWP— The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office plans to review a vote of the county’s planning commission, which granted approval last week to an after-the-fact land use application on …
GREENWOOD TWP— The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office plans to review a vote of the county’s planning commission, which granted approval last week to an after-the-fact land use application on Lake Vermilion that violates the county’s bluff ordinance. Lake Vermilion residents and township officials are raising questions about whether it was inappropriate or unethical for two commission members, including County Commissioner Keith Nelson, to vote on the matter.
The planning commission, on July 13, gave the green light to Rodney Jola, of the excavating firm Jola and Sopp, to finish construction of an access road between his dock and his lake home atop a steep bluff on Isle of Pines.
The decision is roiling residents and officials in Greenwood Township, who had hoped that handing local planning and zoning back to St. Louis County would lead to better decisions on land use cases. Township and county officials completed that handover of authority earlier this year. The Jola case is now raising questions about whether the switch to the county represents an improvement. Lake Vermilion resident Lee Peterson gave high marks to county staff, but said he’s upset that politics seems to be overruling the work of staff.
Greenwood town board chair John Bassing said he strongly disagrees with the planning commission’s latest decision and how it was made. He said at least two members of the commission, particularly County Commissioner Keith Nelson, should have recused themselves. Nelson actually presented Jola’s application to the planning commission back in April, when Jola couldn’t attend the hearing to advocate on his own behalf. Nelson did not vote on the Jola application in April, but he voted to approve the application when the issue came back before the panel last week. The planning commission, in April, denied the application without prejudice, and indicated that Jola could file a new application after having a road engineered to comply with “local, state, and federal regulations regarding land alterations.”
Commission member Sunny Pineo had recused herself from the vote back in April as well, although she did not respond to questions from the Timberjay regarding her reasons for doing so. But when the new application came forward last week, she voted to approve the project, which eventually passed on a 4-1 vote, with David Pollack as the lone no vote.
The vote came despite the fact that the road described in the new application continues to represent a violation of the ordinance, which runs counter to the instructions the planning commission had issued to Jola back in April. In a June 27 letter to planning commission members, County Planning Director Barb Hayden noted that Jola did engage an engineer to design the road. But the new design impacts significantly more area on the bluff and indicates a six foot-wide roadbed, two feet wider than the four-foot maximum width allowed in state shoreland rules. St. Louis County also has “a strict prohibition against private watercraft accesses located on steep slopes,” wrote Hayden. Finally, the new road plan still includes stretches with a slope greater than 20 percent, which is another violation of the ordinance.
“It seems as though the lack of ethics that once plagued Greenwood planning and zoning can now be found in the St. Louis County Planning Commission,” said Bassing. He noted that the commission has a dual role, both in developing planning policy as well as a “quasi-judicial” role that requires a higher level of compliance with ethical constraints.
It’s not clear from the planning commission’s rules whether either Nelson or Pineo had a conflict of interest that would require their recusal. The rules state that no member “is permitted to act on any matter in which he/she has, either directly or indirectly, any personal or financial interest.” According to Bassing, both Nelson and Pineo acknowledged they were friends with either Jola or his wife. Bassing said he saw Nelson’s conflict as the most significant, given that he had advocated on Jola’s behalf in April.
County officials have been careful about how they characterize the discussion and actions of the planning commission, and county land use manager Mary Anderson said questions about the case are being forwarded to the county attorney for response. County attorney Mark Rubin confirmed on Tuesday that an attorney with his office will be “addressing the matter,” upon returning from vacation.
The Timberjay contacted Nelson by email to provide him the opportunity to comment and respond to criticism of his decision to vote. Nelson responded: “I love when people make up stories, when you become a reporter, they call it news. No fact-checking necessary.”
Nelson’s response provides no indication what he believes is made up about the story. Planning commission minutes clearly indicate that Nelson stood in for Jola at the April meeting. And Nelson’s vote did raise an immediate objection at Thursday’s meeting from Lake Vermilion resident Marcie Moe, who reminded Nelson that he had presented Jola’s case in April and questioned whether he could be impartial.
Moe said it was inappropriate for Jola to ask Nelson to present his application in the first place, given that Nelson, as a commissioner, has the authority to appoint members to the planning commission. “There is a lot of political pressure there,” she said. Moe said Jola should have had an employee or a lawyer present his application, as is sometimes done by applicants, if he could not attend personally.
Moe is also distressed that the commission allowed Jola to keep an existing stairway between the lake home and the dock in addition to the new access road, whereas other properties are typically limited to one access point.
Jola, who was present at last Thursday’s meeting, pointed to health concerns which he said prevent him from climbing the existing stairs from his dock to his new lake home. He indicated he needed a side-by-side ATV to travel back and forth to his dock. While Jola’s property is on an island, the property does have road access via the bridge to Isle of Pines.
County records indicate that Jola bought the property in late 2016, a fact that Moe suggests means the “hardship” that Jola is claiming is self-imposed.
Jola began construction of his access road almost immediately upon purchase of the property, without obtaining a necessary conditional use permit. After the county ordered him to halt construction, he applied for an after-the-fact CUP last October, which was denied. According to the county planning staff report, the original road had an average slope of 36 percent, with one stretch having a 47-percent slope. During a site visit in March of this year, county staff found no erosion control measures in place for the road. In a subsequent report to the planning commission in April, county staff determined that the proposed road does not conform to the Lake Vermilion plan, is not compatible with the existing neighborhood and is not considered consistent with a desirable pattern of development in a bluff zone.