Neighbors head to court over Stillwater Towing expansion, object to tree loss – Twin Cities

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City officials in Stillwater and a resident who lives near the proposed location of Stillwater Towing will face off in Washington County District Court this week.

Thomas Coleman, who represents residents in the city’s Forest Hills neighborhood, is asking the court to order the city to rescind a conditional-use permit granted to Stillwater Towing and mandate that the owner of the business comply with the city’s tree-cutting ordinance.

Attorneys for the city have filed a motion for summary judgment, asking that the court deny Coleman’s request for a writ of mandamus and affirm Stillwater’s decision to grant a conditional-use permit for the business.

The hearing will be Friday before Washington County District Court Judge Siv Mjanger.

Central location

Stillwater Towing is located at 1656 Greeley St. S. When the business started “outgrowing its current location,” the owner of the company, Rick Ritzer, began looking for a new property, according to court documents. In 2020, he bought about five acres of land across the street, at 1749 Greeley St. S., to build a new impound lot. The land is zoned business park/industrial.

Towing officials say the company, founded in 1975, must be in a central location in the city to handle its calls.

But Coleman said the company owns other properties in the county that would be better suited for an impound lot. One is located next to a rock quarry, and the other is in a rural setting, he said, and “together have ample room for all of his expansion needs.”

“It’s not the city’s responsibility to accommodate this business owner just because it’s convenient for them and inconvenient for everybody else,” Coleman said. “Would the majority of Stillwater residents want a wrecked-vehicle impound lot in Stillwater near them? Would that be a positive impact for the city?”

The property, which is wooded and adjacent to a wetland, could be put to better use, Coleman said. “It’s a beautiful piece of land,” he said. “We would love to see investors take a look at it and repurpose it for a better-quality use. Could the city, along with its residents, acquire the land and build something that much more appropriate?”

The city planning commission last year approved Stillwater Towing’s conditional-use permit, but denied a tree-replacement variance. Forest Hills residents appealed the permit approval, and Stillwater Towing appealed the tree-replacement variance denial.

The business later withdrew its appeal “after working with its engineers on an alternative-site plan that allowed (them) to bring the total tree loss within the percentage allowed under the city code without permission by the city,” according to court documents filed on behalf of the city.

Coleman said it’s not clear whether Stillwater Towing is in compliance with the city’s tree-replacement codes. “We have no real idea of how many trees were removed before they even applied for a tree variance, and we don’t know how many were removed after,” he said.

The Stillwater City Council, serving as the appeals board, was to vote on the conditional-use permit in December, but tabled the vote for a month. In January, the council 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 proposed impound lot is expected to utilize 2.1 acres of the 5.2-acre site, but Coleman said he expects that Stillwater Towing will eventually expand their operations. “Nobody buys 5 acres to use 2 acres,” he said. “The CUP opens the door to carte blanche to do other operations that would not have been acceptable under the current zoning codes.”

Although the approval of the conditional-use permit was contingent on a number of conditions, Coleman said he is worried what will happen if they are not followed. “If we go to complain, all of our complaints are evaluated by the city council,” he said. “It’s a closed loop.”

Coleman and other resident of Forest Hills have produced a YouTube video, called “Protect Stillwater,” and started a GoFundMe page to raise money for their legal battle.

Zoned industrial

Mayor Ted Kozlowski said he is sympathetic, but stressed that the property, the former site of Croix Oil and Olson Transport, is zoned industrial.

“Denying this business does not solve their problem,” he said. “The problem is they live next to a district that is zoned industrial. To me, it came down to the zoning. That is not going to change. To me, it’s more important to focus on the conditions that we can apply to this use to ensure that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the neighborhood behind it.”

Other allowed uses, such as a cell-phone tower, would not require conditions, he said.

“At least with this, we can require conditions,” he said. “There are no environmental conditions at the current location. Now, the city has the right to make sure runoff is handled correctly. Ultimately, it’s better for the environment.”

Another plus: The new location will be at a controlled intersection with stoplights and traffic control, Kozlowski said. “Right now, all those tow trucks back up directly into a very busy street,” he said. “This is a huge public-safety win as well.”

Paul Merwin is the League of Minnesota Cities attorney assigned to represent the city in the case. “The city reasonably approved an industrial use in an industrial district,” he said. “We expect the court will uphold the city council’s decision.”

In September, Coleman, who is not an attorney, asked that the court approve an order granting a motion for the Stillwater City Council to “revote” on granting the conditional-use permit to Stillwater Towing. The motion calls for Kozlowski and councilmember David Junker “to be excluded from the vote based upon their bias for granting the CUP to Stillwater Towing.”

On Nov. 4, Merwin filed a response asking that the court affirm its decision and deny the motion, saying that Coleman had “fail(ed) to show either an impermissible conflict of interest or impermissible personal bias by the members of the Stillwater City Council.”

Mjanger is expected to take all the motions under advisement.

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