Exceptions to the rules: City board hears appeals from builders, homeowners

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Equity. Public health and safety. Neighborhood characteristics. The Albert Lea Board of Appeals weighs these factors and more when considering exceptions to zoning rules. These rules cover land use and development, usually related to the height, bulk and density of different building projects. To deviate from zoning rules, property owners need a variance, or permission, to do so.

“Serving on a board gives the city council a few more ears or voices to assist with decisions,” says Colby Cunningham, a member of the Board of Appeals, made up of seven volunteers. Provided

“I tell new board members that they are voting to grant an exception to the rules that everyone else has to follow,” said City Planner Megan Boeck. “This board serves an important role by ensuring that fair and objective standards are met in reviewing requests and granting variances.”

In Albert Lea, which was founded in 1856, modern needs often conflict with zoning put in place decades ago. The zoning is based on factors like public health and safety.

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For example, structures need to be set back so far from property lines to reduce the risk of flames spreading in case of fire. Should a homeowner be allowed to build a garage closer to the neighbor’s than setbacks allow? What if the homeowner would like a bigger garage to fit more vehicles, but the lot was zoned back when families tended to have only one car?

That’s where the Board of Appeals comes in. The 7-member board hears the appeal and votes to recommend denial or approval to the Albert Lea City Council. The council then makes the final decision.

To keep construction projects moving along, the city is seeking two more members to serve on the Board of Appeals. Variances require a 10-day public hearing notice in the city’s official newspaper as well as notifying landowners within 350 feet of the property. The board needs four members for a quorum, the minimum number to take official action. Right now the board has only five members, leaving little room if a member is unable to attend.

Without a quorum, meetings need to be rescheduled, which can result in delaying construction and increasing expenses for the property owner.

Volunteering on a board offers ways to get involved, network and learn more about the community, according to Colby Cunningham, who has served on a board since 2017. He served on the Planning Commission before joining the Board of Appeals. When his term expires, Cunningham plans to apply to serve on a different board.

“Serving on a board gives the city council a few more ears or voices to assist with decisions. It’s also not a huge time commitment,” he says. “The Board of Appeals might meet only five times a year, and the Planning Commission meets at most once a month.”

It’s also a way for residents to engage in the democratic process and provide additional perspectives to city decisions.

If you are a resident of Albert Lea and interested in serving, download the application by going to cityofalbertlea.org, clicking on “Government” in the top menu, then “Boards and Commissions” and lastly the application link in first paragraph. Or call the Mayor’s Office at 507-377-4330. Complete the application and return it to:

Mayor of Albert Lea

City Hall

221 E. Clark Street

Albert Lea, MN  56007

The mayor will review applications with the full council voting on appointments. Residents may apply at any time, with the city keeping applications on file and filling open seats as needed.

For more information about the Board of Appeals and variances, visit cityofalbertlea.org/board-of-appeals/.