Three months after denying the expansion of an existing self-storage business, the East Bethel City Council gave the developer an opening to reapply with a revised site plan.
Although the council’s official action on Jan. 13 sustained its denial from October 2018, there appeared to be majority support for reconsidering a revised plan as long as it addresses issues of building setbacks from residential properties and site access issues. Additionally, the developer may need to limit the scope of the project to improve the odds of council support.
In March 2019 MN Built Harris LLC purchased the existing Gopher State Storage along with some adjacent, undeveloped land on the southeast corner of Highway 65 and Sims Road.
The proposal MN Built Harris presented to the city would have added 215 storage units, according to Stephanie Hanson, East Bethel’s community development director.
The current site consists of one office building and two storage buildings. The original developer in 1986 could have constructed four storage buildings since that was part of the site plan the council had approved at the time. But the other two storage buildings were never built.
In 2007 the council established new rules for this business district that blocked any new self-storage businesses or expansions of existing businesses without council approval. Gopher State Storage was a legal, nonconforming use, so it was allowed to continue to operate at its present-day capacity.
The plan MN Built Harris submitted in 2019 showed three additional storage buildings to the east of the existing buildings, which would be farther away from Highway 65. There was also a smaller fourth building shown just south of the existing office building. To the north were five more buildings.
Mayor Steve Voss said he would consider a revised plan that only showed new storage buildings to the east of the existing buildings. But he opposes any expansion to the north on the vacant land on the southeast corner of Highway 65 and Sims Road. He is aware that developers have been inquiring about properties in the area.
“This area will be developed at some point in the future, maybe sooner rather than later,” Voss said. “By allowing this expansion we are basically writing off that corner for any future use that fits within the long-term plans of the city. It’s a high-visibility corner that could be used to serve residents in other capacities than self-storage.”
On the other hand, Council Members Tim Harrington and Suzanne Erkel said their main issues continue to be that the developer needs to resolve building setbacks and site access.
The previous plan would have needed setback variances for two storage buildings on the east side of the property, which are adjacent to a residential neighborhood.
The plan showed one access on an existing Highway 65 service road that currently services a limited number of properties, including Boat World. Due to the proximity to Highway 65, the city’s long-term plan is to remove this service road. These businesses would need to have access on Davenport Street, and MN Built Harris would need to modify its plan to have this access point on Davenport.
Erkel said if the developer can revise its plan to address the building setback from the neighborhood and add the access on Davenport Street, she would support the development.
Harrington had a similar opinion.
“I would like to see that corner cleaned up,” Harrington said. “At least these guys are coming forward. It looks like a decent plan. It sounds like they’re going to build nice buildings. We have somebody here. You don’t know when it’s going to be developed.”
David Heil and John Henry are the business partners for MN Built Harris, LLC. Heil is the founder and chief executive officer of State Storage Group, which includes other self-storage locations in Minnesota, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin.
Heil and Henry told the council their plan had not been to build all of the new buildings at once. They intended to phase the construction to meet demand.
Heil said they could explore not developing the northern portion of the property and only the eastern portion along Davenport Street. He also said they would address the access to Davenport Street and the site setback issues with their updated plan.
Henry said they were surprised to learn of the council’s denial of their conditional use permit and site plan in October 2019. The council had tabled the proposal at a meeting in September 2019 because the application was deemed incomplete. Henry said they were under the impression there would be more opportunities to address the council’s concerns before a vote.
Henry said they have already made changes to improve the appearance of the property, such as replacing the fence, repaving the lot and removing vehicles that had been parked outside and visible from Highway 65.
“We’re in the service business,” Henry said. “We want to serve the residents of the community.”
Henry and Heil asked to meet with city staff and council as soon as possible to review a new site plan. But City Attorney Patrick Sweeney said the new plan would have to go through the formal review process again. City Administrator Jack Davis said the city would waive the application fees.
Davis said the soonest the planning commission could address this matter would be Feb. 24. The next council meeting would be March 9.
Council Member Randy Plaisance was still skeptical that the self-storage business is the best long-term development for that corner, but he was also willing to listen to a new proposal.
“It doesn’t seem like the best use for that corner, to put in storage units, but we have to take into consideration all the work and effort they have put in so far and their willingness to maybe change their plans to at least try to address some of our concerns,” Plaisance said.