By JANE MCCLURE
Street light test underway
The St. Paul Department of Public Works is testing different LED street lights and wants community input. Residents will have the opportunity to provide feedback on different characteristics of lights through a survey continuing through Fri., May 19. Visit www.stpaul.gov/LED for more information on how residents can participate in the survey.
Lights are being tested in three neighborhoods, including Lexington-Hamline and Payne-Phalen. A local test is underway in Hamline-Midway on Blair Ave. between Lexington Pkwy. and Hamline Ave., and Van Buren Ave. between Griggs St. and Hamline.
A different LED bulb has been installed on each block so that residents can compare and contrast them to provide input on such characteristics as color, glare, and coverage. Residents can provide feedback to the Public Works Department through a paper form or on-line survey. This input will help inform the department as it continues its program to transition the city’s street lights to LED technology.
St. Paul is moving to LED lighting because of economic and environmental benefits, yet there have been many complaints about the quality of the new lights as well potential health impacts.
Decision on home delayed
Wingspan Life Resources, which serves people with disabilities, is working with St. Paul city officials to legalize designation for a Hamline-Midway property it has used for many years. A request to allow legal nonconforming use status for 1239 Sherburne Ave. returns to the St. Paul Planning Commission Zoning Committee later this month for action.
The committee laid over Wingspan’s request on Mar. 30, to seek more information.
Wingspan wishes to use the house as an office for two employees, and small group program space. Two other people live in the house.
The property is zoned for residential use. The house was once a group home but was later converted into office and program use. Small programs, such as cooking classes, are held there.
One issue the city and Wingspan need to sort out is parking, as the house is in a residential permit parking district. Residents and employees park on the street, and an agency van is sometimes parked there. Another issue is what conditions to place on the house. A third is whether the nonconforming use has a time limit, or whether it could continue indefinitely.
Street maintenance program receives ok
St. Paul’s new street maintenance services program will provide cost savings in 2017 for most property owners. On Mar. 22 the St. Paul City Council adopted this year’s replacement for the longstanding street right-of-way maintenance program. Work will continue on funding plans for 2018 and beyond. That will include ongoing scrutiny of how corner commercial properties are assessed.
The vote means that the council gave up about $14 million in new spending initiatives planned for this year, after raising the property tax levy to cover those desires. A fire department assessment study and hiring of two police department community outreach posts were saved. But many more programs hit the chopping block, including jobs creation, more recreation center programs, downtown ambassadors, more spending on emerald ash borer, and parks and library maintenance.
St. Paul had a separate right-of-way maintenance assessment since 2003, eventually moving about three dozen different street and boulevard services under that program. It was promoted as a way to assess costs such as snow plowing, street sweeping and tree trimming to the city’s many nonprofits ranging from hospitals and college campuses to small storefront offices and neighborhood churches. About one-third of the city is not on the property tax rolls.
But a lawsuit by downtown churches and an August 2016 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the fees are actually a tax. That forced the council to put all of its added 2017 spending into contingency, to help cover what is an almost $32 million program.
The council action will create about $11 million in new fees for specific services. Those are street sweeping, street lighting, sealcoating, mill and overlay work and sidewalk repair. The sidewalk repair line item was cut in half, so there won’t be an assessment this year. But it also means less sidewalk work will be done.
Fees will be paid per foot of street frontage, including the nonprofit property owners targeted by the original right-of-way program. What is described as a typical residential lot will pay about $65 in fees, as compared to $200 in right-of-way assessments. Street lighting and sweeping will be charged at 100 percent cost every year; mill and overlay and sealcoating will be charged on a cost share basis as work is done. Mill and overlays on arterial streets happen about once a decade. Sealcoating is on an eight-year cycle for residential streets.
Some corner properties will see changes. Residential properties of up to four units will see a 50 percent reduction in fees. Corner tax-exempt, commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings with five or more units will pay full costs. Council members said this is a proposal for 2017 only and that the corner properties issue will continue to be studied. Several commercial and multi-family resident property owners announced earlier this year that they are suing the city.
Diversity hailed in new process
When Chris Coleman’s tenure as St. Paul mayor ends this year, his administration will leave behind a simplified appointment process for city boards, commission, and committees. Not only are vacancies being filled more quickly, but city staff can also better track the diversity of its pool of applicants. More than 300 resumes are currently in the candidate pool, St. Paul City Council members were told in March.
That pleases council members, who have pushed for more racial diversity in appointments. They’ve also called for seats to be filled more quickly, and not be vacant for months at a time. The vacancies have caused delays for action on Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) items and, at one point several months ago, on the Planning Commission.
One stumbling block for the Coleman administration has been staff duty changes for those handling appointments. More than half a dozen people have been assigned the appointments task in recent years. Nancy Homans, a Coleman senior policy advisor, has most recently led the appointment process and spent several months making improvements. That has meant spending the last year developing an online portal for applications, cleaning up city databases and making sure a maze of city website links are now working.
St. Paul has 36 permanent city boards, commission, and committees that citizens can be appointed to. Between them, the groups have 313 seats. There are fewer than 40 vacancies at this time. The new portal makes it easier to sort applicants for their areas of interest, and to track applicants by race. The city is working to make all appointed groups more diverse. One current task is to sort through more than 80 applications for the police-civilian review commission, which will be announced in May or June. Another is to fill 13 seats on the advisory committees on aging and disability.
Transportation company wins nod to stay
A transportation company can operate at a Thomas Ave. location with a determination of similar use approved Mar. 24 by the St. Paul Planning Commission. Rift Valley Transportation was granted the designation for 1033 Thomas Ave. The decision is final as there has been no appeal to the St. Paul City Council.
Rift Valley is a privately owned company that provides transportation for students, medical patients, social service agencies and private companies. It moved to Thomas Ave. last year. City officials later decided it needed a Planning Commission review.
The Planning Commission put nine conditions on its decision, dictating how the property will be used, where vehicles will be maintained and bringing the property up to code. The vehicles used by the business are small, and can only hold up to 10 people. Larger vehicles can’t be parked there.
Frogtown Neighborhood Association recommended approval of the request. No one has objected to the city, and the Planning Commission received one letter in support.
The Thomas Ave. building dates from 1919 and was originally a creamery. Its most recent use was as a sign company.