Forest Lake's plans for a new city hall, police station and fire station are likely headed to court because some residents have challenged the City Council's planning process.
The Lake Area Business Association, along with Forest Lake residents Cameron and Cassandra Piper, filed a complaint Jan. 28 claiming the city was out of bounds in working with its Economic Development Agency (EDA) to purchase and redevelop the Northland Mall site near Hwy. 61 in Forest Lake.
"This has become a very divisive issue in town," said Forest Lake City Council Member Ben Winnick.
Forest Lake Mayor Chris Johnson said that City Attorney Scott Knudson will file a response in Washington County District Court and that the City Council will be briefed during a closed session on Monday.
The City Council voted Dec. 17 to approve the $21 million project, which calls for the new city government facilities and 22,500 square feet of commercial and retail space.
The Pipers and the business association say the city falsely claimed the Northland Mall site was blighted in order to avoid a public referendum.
Cameron Piper said the lack of public input and the purpose of the EDA is at the crux of his challenge. "It's not for government facilities, but to create economic development."
Johnson said the city's plan involved a year's worth of community feedback, including surveys and five separate town hall-type meetings.
"One of the primary things we got out of all of that was people really wanted us to [spur] redevelopment along the Hwy. 61 corridor," Johnson said, adding that he didn't witness an abnormal resistance to the project leading up to the council's vote in December.
One thousand signatures were gathered Dec. 19 and 20 on a pro-referendum petition from people who were upset the plans to redevelop the lot weren't open to a public vote.
Frederic Knaak, the plaintiffs' attorney, said the city could just as easily finance the project outside of the EDA, but by doing so, it would allow the decision to be put to a vote.
"They're really trying to hook their finger into that loophole," Knaak said. "If they didn't, they would expose themselves to a bond election."
Piper said he doesn't expect the city to put much effort into fighting his potential lawsuit. "They were so unconcerned with [the suit] that they proceeded to hire an architect for $700,000" for the project during their Jan. 28 meeting.
The challenge was filed after the EDA-issued revenue bonds were already in the city's bank, and Johnson said a request for proposals for a construction manager has been created.
"People certainly have the right to ask the courts to review our actions," Johnson said. "But time is money. I don't want to unnecessarily delay it when we think the odds are towards success in the lawsuit."
Dissenters say the 30,000-square-foot site could serve better as retail-only.
Winnick, who joined the Forest Lake City Council in January, said his distaste for the city's plan to redevelop the Northland Mall site was one of his main reasons for running in November.
"I'm not against the city improving its facilities," Winnick said. "I believe there are much better choices to be made than using that particular location."
Winnick owns and operates his family business, Winnick Supply, which is on an adjacent property on the north side of the Northland Mall site.
"The physical location is a good retail location," Winnick said. "That's my problem with it. We don't need a location like that for municipal facilities. It's a high-traffic retail area that would produce a high volume of tax revenue for the city."
Knudson said the EDA had the right to issue bonds for the project and that, under the current plan, portions could still be used for economic development. "The dilapidated part of the project would be demoed, the soil worked on, and then building of the new facilities," he said.
Similar cases have sprung up in state courts around the metro -- including over Roseville's new fire station, which used $10 million in bonds from the city's Port Authority. The planning process and groundbreaking had been postponed because of pending litigation, but in June the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city.
Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.