The Shakopee Planning Commission voted Thursday evening to withdraw a vote to rezone the site of an affordable housing project, ending an attempt by city officials to kill the project due to public pressure.
The move will likely put an end to a series of twists and turns in the Prairie Pointe housing project that is being developed by Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, which serves a rental clientele that is about 90 percent people of color. It means the project can move forward as planned, and that Beacon doesn’t have to worry about whether the site will be rezoned, which would require them to redesign the project or scrap it altogether.
The commission’s decision to remove an agenda item to vote on rezoning the project site also prevents the city council and city officials from revisiting the rezoning issue, said Michael Kerski, the city’s planning and development director.
About 50 people filled the commission’s meeting room Thursday evening, most of them supporting the project and Beacon. The six members of the commission in attendance Thursday unanimously approved withdrawing the rezoning vote, prompting many attendees to applaud. One commissioner was absent from the meeting; there was no discussion on the matter before the vote.
Beacon held a rally outside Shakopee City Hall after the vote. Ricky Kamil, a Beacon organizer, asked supporters at the rally to text him one word to describe how they felt. Many supporters cheered and applauded as Kamil spoke at the rally.
“We all are feeling a little bit of relief in making sure this can continue forward, but also, incredibly, I think, proud of all the leaders that all stepped up,” Kamil said in an interview with the Sahan Journal.
The city council first voted in 2020 to rezone the project site to allow Beacon to proceed with its vision for the development, but a news report and blog post about problems at other Beacon properties caused many Shakopee residents to advocate against the Beacon project.
A Sahan Journal investigation published last month revealed that in the face of public pressure, city leaders, including City Administrator Bill Reynolds, devised a plan earlier this year to kill the project by asking the planning commission to rezone the site back to its original status.
Emails obtained by Sahan Journal also showed that a city planner told Beacon in 2020 that it did not have to host a required neighborhood meeting about the project due to COVID-19 concerns, but that city officials said this year that the commission should vote on the rezoning because that meeting was never held.
Beacon has said rezoning the site now would erase years of planning and would delay or kill the project. An altered version of the project could still have been built had the site been rezoned, but it would have accommodated fewer families, Beacon has said. The current plan would build 46 units at 4th Avenue East and Sarazin Street.
Thursday’s turn of events occurred after Kerski sent the commission a note recommending that the commission withdraw the rezoning vote from its agenda.
“Staff recommends that the Planning Commission vote the item be taken from the table and to withdraw the rezoning request,” said Kerski’s note, which was linked to the commission’s agenda.
Construction set for next spring
“Beacon is pleased at the City’s recommendation that the rezoning proposal be withdrawn,” a Beacon spokesperson told Sahan Journal before the commission’s vote. “We are hopeful that the Planning Commission will follow this recommendation so Beacon and Shakopee can move forward on our shared goal of building affordable housing for this community.”
Construction on the project is set to begin next spring, Beacon’s spokesperson said.
Kerski’s note to the planning commission repeated the city’s stance that Beacon did not hold a neighborhood hearing on the project. He did not mention that a city planner had emailed Beacon in 2020 and told them the city would gather public input electronically, which would replace the meeting requirement.
“The project was originally proposed at the start of the pandemic and, operating in a new world, they did not hold a public meeting as required,” said Kerki’s note to the commission. “Beacon chose to hold a neighborhood meeting recently and the materials from that meeting are attached. Beacon has made several commitments to neighbors and to the city to ensure that the development is successful for all.”
Beacon has stated that the neighborhood meeting was “replaced” with public input gathered by city staff from online submissions and emails. Emails obtained by Sahan earlier this year showed that when a city planner first approached Beacon in 2020 with that alternative plan due to COVID-19, Beacon sought and received assurance that Beacon did not have to hold a neighborhood meeting.
“This replaces the neighborhood open house we were otherwise to have done and we do not need to do our own neighborhood open house, in-person or virtually, and send our own invitation, at a point in the future, correct?” Beacon asked the city planner in a 2020 email.
“This will replace the neighborhood meeting requirement,” the city planner wrote back.
Kevin Walker, Beacon’s vice president of housing development, told Sahan Journal in July that Beacon wanted “to make sure everyone feels good about the process,” so it hosted a neighborhood meeting in July and submitted feedback from residents to the city.
“Ultimately, I believe that the city came to believe we fully had met all city requirements and there was no legal basis to support a rezoning,” Walker said after Thursday’s vote.
He also believes that city officials’ recommendation that the commission withdraw the rezoning vote “was a recognition on the part of the city that there wasn’t anywhere further to go with this action that had been initiated.”
Kerski’s note to the planning commission also stated that Beacon will have to follow the city’s rental housing ordinance and property maintenance code that was enacted after the Prairie Pointe project was approved.
“The property will have to be licensed by the city and inspected annually by the city beginning three years after its original certificate of occupancy,” his note said. “At any time, should the rental inspector receive complaints from renters or neighbors, they have the ability to meet with the property manager and Beacon to resolve issues.
“Should those issues not be resolved, the Board of Adjustment would hear a case concerning the property’s rental license per steps set forth in the city’s ordinance.”
A Beacon spokesperson said Thursday that they do not anticipate any delays getting the Prairie Pointe development licensed by the city.
Fox9 reported earlier this year that residents at one of Beacon’s properties in Minneapolis were experiencing violent squatters and several unresolved inspection violations. Atop of that, Beacon published a blog post last December about one of its properties in St. Paul, where residents said they dealt with unsafe living conditions and problems getting repairs completed in a timely manner.
Sahan Journal’s investigation revealed that those news reports prompted many city residents to contact city council members and city leaders, eventually leading to the rezoning effort. While city leaders knew they risked being sued if they went forward with the rezoning plan, they decided to proceed, according to emails obtained by Sahan Journal.
“We are going to essentially rezone the property,” City Administrator Bill Reynolds wrote in an April 10, 2023, email sent to council members and Mayor Matt Lehman.
“This will change the property back to B1, which they can then have an apartment building by right BUT this will negate the agreement with the church to use their parking for residents. Meaning that they will not meet code. Of course I expect they would ask for a variance – which can be denied by council.”
Emails show that Kerski, the city’s director of planning and development, told Reynolds that he discussed with City Attorney James Thomson about rezoning the project site, and that Thomson was “nervous.”
According to the planning commission’s June 8 agenda, city staff believed the city council’s June 2020 vote rezoning the project site was an “error” because Beacon never fulfilled the requirement to host a neighborhood meeting. Beacon officials have said they were not notified of the June 8 public hearing or vote.
The planning commission voted on June 8 to table the issue and revisit it at their August meeting. The issue was postponed a second time to Thursday’s meeting to give the planning commission time to review materials Beacon submitted from the neighborhood meeting it held in late July.