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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Conflict of Interest Weighs on Newport Planning Commission Chair Who Sold Land to Developers on Project He is in Charge of Overseeing

This article is authored by Laura E. Pride Verbout, attorney, a Newport resident who lives on Ria Lake that is impacted by the proposed Bailey Meadows development.

The chair of the Newport Planning Commission, Kevin Haley, has sold key lake front property to housing developers while at the same time being responsible to oversee that the project is to city standard. Most would call that a conflict of interest. On his former land they plan to build 7 homes. They will cost a predicted half a million dollars each. He purchased the property for $155,000 years ago; He refuses to say how much he sold it for; He refuses to remove himself from the planning or the commission decision making and the votes; He denies any conflict of interest; and blames the Met Council for one of the most high density single family home developments one can find in the County.

Bailey Meadows Development is a proposed "mix of high density to medium density residential housing" for 200 homes in Newport. The project centers around land between Ria and La Lakes. From the start, the project has felt rushed through the approval process. Leaving residents, like myself, to attend meetings to bring up our many concerns. Oversight the planning commission should be leading.

For example, in the July 2017 planning commission meeting a resident who lives down the road from me on lake Ria pointed out the lack of environmental consideration the development has. The resident referenced his background in construction and stated the lake levels could be affected by development and the wildlife could be negatively impacted too. Stating "I guarantee there won’t be wood ducks on the lake anymore if 200 people throw a canoe into the lake anytime they want." In the meetings that followed the commission put in vague land use restrictions for those living within 1,000 feet of the lake and put the DNR in charge of public water access. Whether that is good enough to protect the wildlife from 200 new residents will remain to be seen.

In other planning commission meetings residents, besides myself, brought up concerns that everything from added street and residential lighting to increased traffic on existing roads would be unwelcomed changes. Other's commented the development seems like a gated community; noting the lack of parking to access the trail and a small park planned. The head of the planning commission Kevin Haley always seems to be the first to interject with a defensive response. For example telling the resident concerned about extra neighborhood lighting stating that it's a federal law and there's nothing the city law can do to supersede it. 

It seemed odd at first seeing our concerns, the environmental impact, and even details about utility placement and cost taking a back seat. That is until the November 9th planning commission meeting where it was found that he has sold property to developers in the proposed development. He's listed as one of four property owners at:
3025 Bailey Road NE, Newport, MN 55055

His lake front lot is large enough to fit seven half a million dollar houses on. As one of four land sellers and with so much power, one can imagine the great incentive he had to to meet the developers needs over the surrounding residents. The story develops further when you see that Haley's planning commission pushed to shrink the current city density ordinances to fit the most homes possible on the property. When approved this translates to even more value to Mr. Haley's property. See page 12 of the PUD November 9th meeting:

"Single-Family lots: 
Reduction in side setbacks for Single-Family lots from 9’ to 7’ on the dwelling unit side. 
Reduction in lot depth from 120’ to 110’ 
Decrease in minimum lot area from 7200 square feet to 6050 square feet 
Villa lots: 
Reduction in side setbacks for Villa lots from 9’ to 5’ on dwelling units side 
Reduction in minimum lot area from 7200 square feet to 6,000 square feet"

There's other questionable requests for exceptions in the proposal that benefit the developer's profit such as:
-"If the developers build the trail, the cost of the trail may be included in the park dedication fee." It seems odd to have the tax payers not in the development pay for trails around it.
-Decreasing street right-of-way from 60' to 50' 
-Decreasing the width of the city standard street from 31' to 28' (saves developer money and boosts property size and profit)
-"Surmountable curbs" instead of city standard "B-16" curbs stating it "allows more flexibility for designing homes and driveways on narrower lots"

At one point the County responded to the planning commission's unsafe request about the 50 foot of right-of-way stating that type of roadway needs 75 feet of right-of-way to be safe in an October 27th letter to the planners. Other overlooked safety concerns were explained by the County. 
-"road A" has 30 foot change in grade (height) in a short distance. Stating they should reconsider this steep of a road.
-That the intersections leading into the development should have center of the road left hand turn lanes given just the current traffic volumes on the road not to mention the future traffic by the year 2030.
-The drainage ponds need to be proven adequate to prevent runoff (apparently their design from Haley's Newport PUD appear to small)
-The design submitted to the County appears to not have sound mitigation measures in place that are required by law.

Everything about the Haley's planning commission appears to focus on putting the biggest houses on the smallest lot sizes possible in a development with the smallest roads possible with the least amount of added costs for the developer. Anyone can look at the design, even at a glance, and note this development is uncommonly tight, especially compared to neighboring housing developments.

Kevin Haley responded when asked about his apparent conflict of interest, refusing to step down from decision making or voting on the plans that appear to favor the developer's profits over the residents concerns. Even in this late stage of planning. He stated "The Final and binding vote is with the city council. As far as street width, lot size ect. the Met Councils directives have a large influence, along with costs to provide sewer and water. The sale price of the small acreage on my parcel will be available from the county when it is finalized."

This response is of no comfort to neighbors of this cramped development who will be affected by the added traffic and affect on the lakes. Blaming Met Council is a poor excuse as they do not control how an area is zoned. The planning commission could have seen how bad the zoning was and intervened. The head of the planning commission should be a safeguard for the city residents from concerning development like this. They are an important role between a developer and a city council. Without a good planning commission head you can get a development rubber stamped and sent to the city council for final approval where at such time it is too late to send developers back to the drawing board without consequence. 

City Councils do not have time to be the middle man between developers and city, county and state code so they put it on the planning commission. In this case, the planning commission oversight has terribly failed. Hopefully the city council will realize the mistake of letting Kevin Haley run this project with such disregard for the needs of the current residents and the two lakes. The Newport City Council vote is this Thursday at 5:30pm.