Stillwater: Judge upholds city’s decision to issue permit to towing company

A Washington County District Court judge has upheld the city of Stillwater’s decision to issue a conditional use permit to Stillwater Towing regarding the company’s expansion plans.

Judge Siv Mjanger issued the ruling last week and granted the city’s and the company’s motions for summary judgment; Stillwater Towing was an intervenor in the case.

Stillwater resident Thomas Coleman, the petitioner, had asked the court to order the city to rescind the permit granted to Stillwater Towing and mandate that owner Richard Ritzer comply with the city’s tree-cutting ordinance.

Coleman, who represented himself pro se in the case, said he and other residents in the city’s Forest Hills neighborhood plan to appeal the judge’s ruling. Their neighborhood is adjacent to the five acres that Stillwater Towing purchased at 1749 Greeley St. for a new impound lot.

In her ruling, Mjanger wrote that Coleman made no showing that Stillwater Towing was in violation of the tree ordinance or that the city had failed to perform a mandatory duty.

“Even if the petitioner had submitted evidence of the removal of trees, up to 35 percent of the trees may be removed without even triggering the replacement requirements of the ordinance,” Mjanger wrote. “There is no evidence that Stillwater Towing is in violation of the ordinance.”

Stillwater Towing is located at 1656 Greeley St. S., but began looking for land to expand about 15 years ago. The business must be in a central location in the city to handle its calls, company officials have said.

Neighbors protested the expansion plans after the company said it planned to cut down 181 trees on its new site, located across the street from its current location.

The city planning commission approved Stillwater Towing’s conditional-use permit for the expansion site, which is zoned business park/industrial, but denied a tree-replacement variance. The neighbors appealed the conditional-use permit approval; Stillwater Towing appealed the tree-replacement variance denial. Stillwater Towing officials later announced they had changed the tree-cutting plan – lowering the number of trees removed from 181 to 97 — which meant they could withdraw the application for a variance.

The Stillwater City Council, serving as the appeals board, in January 2022 denied the residents’ appeal of the conditional-use permit and upheld the planning commission’s approval. Approval of the conditional-use permit was contingent on 21 conditions that the business must meet in relation to use of the property, city officials said.

The city’s decision to grant the permit with 21 conditions “was reached after a thoughtful and deliberate process,” Mjanger wrote in her ruling. “Based on the city’s lengthy information gathering process, multiple hearings held, and painstaking review of the city ordinances this court concludes there was a rational basis for the city’s decision.

“The city’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious,” she wrote. “It was a rational decision supported by evidence in the record.”

But Coleman said Monday that the Stillwater City Council erred in voting to approve the conditional-use permit.

“The fundamental question in this case has always been, why would any city council member vote to impose a wrecked vehicle and storage lot on forested land, within Stillwater’s city limits, and adjacent to residential property and a wetland?” Coleman said Monday. “This alone cannot be defended, when one considers the interests of the city and its residents.”

Coleman said the city’s planning report, dated Jan. 4, 2022, made it clear that the proposed use of the land “does not conform to the intent of the (city’s) zoning code, is not consistent with the comprehensive plan, and would be a nuisance to the public welfare of the community.”

“What was not clear about this statement to the city council and the district court?” he said. “How are citizens to think about their elected officials, due process, and a fair and just court system?”

By granting the permit to Stillwater Towing, the council “also voted to devalue the residential and commercial properties adjacent to Stillwater Towing’s proposed location,” he said.

“In doing so, the city council will decrease property tax revenues of the adjacent properties and impose those tax revenue losses to other Stillwater residents. For us, there is no alternative to filing an appeal for the benefit of Stillwater and its residents.”

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