by Anne Holzman
In another step toward possible housing construction on Luther Seminary’s Breck Woods site, the Lauderdale City Council held a public hearing Nov. 26 on proposed zoning code changes that would create a High Density Residential – Conservation category, with a conservation easement overseen by an entity yet to be identified.
Master Properties, the site’s proposed developer, was scheduled to make a presentation on its latest building plans to the Council on Dec. 5. But that meeting was indefinitely postponed.
While Master Properties’ presentation had not been rescheduled as of the Bugle’s deadline, the Lauderdale staff had asked the Council to proceed with the zoning code change. The zoning language revision will likely come before the council again in January. Actual rezoning of the site would follow council approval of the developer’s plan, which has yet to submitted to the Council.
Luther Seminary has been in negotiations for over a year to sell a 15.5-acre parcel at its campus that includes Breck Woods. At the same time, Lauderdale has updated its long-range plan document, the 2040 plan, which calls for higher density zoning. City staff acknowledged the connection between the two but asked the Council to consider the zoning change as a broader issue. They said Master Properties has expressed a willingness to consider a conservation easement in combination with housing development.
So far there are no conservation easements in Lauderdale, but there is a Conservation zoning category, for outdoor recreation use. Breck Woods is currently zoned Conservation. Conditional uses of a lot zoned Conservation include public buildings and telecommunications, but not residences.
A high-density residential project in a zone that doesn’t allow that use would go through the city’s planned unit development (PUD) process, to be rezoned in the final stages of that process. The assumption is that the Breck Woods buyer, in the process of purchasing a lot zoned Conservation, would then ask the city to rezone the site. The new zoning category may improve the buyer’s chances of winning the desired high-density zone by allowing them to argue that they are meeting environmental goals rather than just destroying the natural features of the site.
At the Nov. 26 hearing, planning consultant Jennifer Haskamp presented HDR-C rules that would allow the Council to grant “density bonuses” when development plans meet general goals including protecting natural features but does not require it. “We’re putting the responsibility on the developer” to choose environmental goals, Haskamp said.
Wayne Sisel, a former planning committee member and Friends of Breck Woods board member, addressed the council at the hearing. He told the Bugle afterwards that the ordinance seems “well-intended,” but he’s concerned that a menu of unweighted conservation objectives leaves the developer too much leeway. “Since this method of evaluation is untested, it’s easy to imagine potential for misapplication,” Sisel said.
Steve Ahlgren, a Fulham Street resident and Friends of Breck Woods member, expressed concern at the hearing that the language describing the new zoning category doesn’t specifically protect natural features. “There should be a voice for nature,” he told the council.
Ahlgren elaborated on his comments in an interview. He mentioned a 2017 city council resolution to address global warming and said maintaining a healthy forest would support that commitment.
Ahlgren said other cities have followed conservation practices outlined by the state Department of Natural Resources, and he would like Lauderdale to follow those principles. That would include inventories of plants and animals on a site, he said, and those would have to be done over successive seasons. He fears that the current project timeline does not leave time for such inventories. Ahlgren said the woods are intrinsically valuable apart from recreational use. “This is our unique opportunity to have a stretch of nature in the city,” Ahlgren said.