Hopkins, Minnetonka councils plan collaboration on light rail station

by Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

The city councils of Minnetonka and Hopkins met Jan. 17 to determined how to proceed with joint discussion and decision making on the Shady Oak Station, the Southwest Light Rail stop located between the two cities.

Staff members from both cities worked together and presented the councils with two models for the collaboration. One option, a joint planning commission, would leave final decision-making authority with each council after the commission representing members of both cities provided a recommendation.
The second option, recommended by staff members, was a joint approval board, comprised of three members from both councils, that would directly assume voting authority on projects. To avoid a split vote that would stall decision making, staff suggested that five board members be included in the vote, with the majority determined by the jurisdiction for a given project. For example, a project located in Hopkins would be voted on by three Hopkins board members and two Minnetonka board members, with the remaining Minnetonka member abstaining from the vote.

“The difference really is that action at the joint approval board happens more quickly than the joint planning commission … which has that extra step in the decision making process,” said Minnetonka City Planner Loren Gordon.

Council members from both cities expressed unease with the expedited process of the joint approval board, particularly concerning the abstaining voting member, given that only a few representatives would make a decision affecting the whole council and its city.
“The system that we’ve got it well known and works well. I don’t think there’s any benefit in trying to hurry that process,” Minnetonka Councilmember Dick Allendorf said. “Probably more importantly, I see the joint approval board as a minority of our council making a decision for the majority of our council. That is something that rankles me and I don’t think it’s something our citizens expect.”

While other council members saw some value in the staff recommendation, it was agreed that the process should continue to be open and accessible to residents.
“Clearly the recommended option, the joint approval board, is more approval-friendly and it has less process in it,” said Minnetonka Councilmember Brad Wiersum. “We want to be pro-development but I think we need to be very mindful of building in enough resident input so it doesn’t look like we’re doing this with an iron fist.”
Preference for the joint planning commission process was shared by members of both councils.
“This 200 acres is really important and it’s important for everybody on the council to have their say on what’s out there,” said Hopkins Councilmember Aaron Kuznia.

Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider suggested that a concept plan review be presented to both councils, prior to a meeting of the joint planning commission, to allow for further discussion and input.
This additional step was met with general approval from both councils.
“There would be a lot of cross-pollination in the process, even though the ultimate decision would go back to the individual council,” Wiersum said.

The final structure, that the council members agreed on, will include a joint council meeting for a concept plan review, followed by a meeting the joint planning commission. The commission will be comprised of four leaders from each city and could include current or former council members, mayors, planning commission members or other qualified individuals as determined by each city. The joint commission would make a recommendation, at which point a final decision on the project would be made by the regular city council in whose jurisdiction the project site is located.
“Very good points have been made in the councils having the final say,” said Hopkins Mayor Molly Cummings. “I think it is a huge development opportunity that we need to be very, very careful about so I’m not sure that speed rises to the top of the list of things to do.”

Staff members from both cities said they would work together to fulfill the request of the council by drafting an outline for a joint planning commission which includes a concept review phase.
“Our recommendation was not necessarily how a lot of people wanted it to go,” said Hopkins Community Development Director Kersten Elverum. “If that’s not the decision of all of you, we can make anything work and we certainly will move forward with enthusiasm.”

The final decision will determine how zoning and other ordinances will operate in regards to the Shady Oak Station site.
“How we structure the authority will dictate how we structure the ordinance,” said Hopkins City Planner Jason Lindahl.
The next stage of the process is for staff members to draft an agreement, to be presented to both councils in late spring or early summer.

Minnetonka Community Development Director Julie Wischnack added that the process is not likely to be completed in a single draft and would require further discussion, feedback and adjustment.
The Hopkins mayor thanked Minnetonka staff and council members for attending the meeting, hosted at Hopkins City Hall, and said she looks forward to further collaboration.
“It’s really exciting now that the last funding hurdle is behind us,” Cummings said. “This was a great discussion … very, very fruitful.”

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]