DULUTH - A planned 100-room hotel in an oddly zoned Duluth neighborhood has neighbors and environmentalists worried about potential harm to a nearby brook trout stream, already undergoing expensive restoration.

Iowa-based Kinseth Hospitality Cos. plans a four-story extended-stay Marriott on a spit of land dotted with trees and wetlands long zoned for commercial use, with a Kohl's department store on one side and a row of rural-zoned homes on the other. The impaired Miller Creek runs in between a road next to the proposed hotel and Kohl's, winding through the busy Miller Hill Mall corridor and down the hillside into Lake Superior by way of the St. Louis River.

The project illustrates the city's struggle to balance economic development with environmental protection, opponents say.

"All of the impacts up here slowly flow downstream," said Jill Crawford-Nichols, who lives in the neighborhood. "And it just continues to set the precedent that Duluth communities are expendable at the benefit of hospitality tax."

City officials last month recommended that the Duluth Planning Commission, the city's governing body for environmental review, deny a request for such a review posed in a citizen petition and signed by about 250 people. It asked the city to require an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for the property, which would direct Kinseth to look further into its project's potential environmental harms.

The commission instead opted to require the EAW, a move that was promptly appealed to the Duluth City Council by the developer. Petitioners dispute that the council can change the Planning Commission's decision, but the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board said state statute allows it. A vote is expected Monday.

The city, in a 457-page report compiled for the citizen-led Planning Commission, wrote that potential environmental effects — such as warm-water runoff — have been "anticipated and will be controlled through provisions in the city zoning review and building permit process."

City officials declined to comment further, pending the Monday decision.

An attorney for Kinseth argues the Planning Commission ignored the city's findings in its decision, saying its "vague" concerns about impact to the watershed and satisfying nearby residents don't meet standards that would require the review.

"If the basis of the commission's decision is effectively 'get [an EAW] for the sake of optics to placate the neighborhood' ... then this council should be fully aware of the message of inconsistency and unpredictability this sends to those who would pursue commercial, residential or other endeavors in Duluth," Mark Pilon wrote in an letter to the City Council on Thursday.

Kinseth development manager Aaron Mailey said the company has completed numerous wetland reports for the state.

"We've tried to mitigate any issues to Miller Creek," he said. "We've moved to underground retention systems to help control the water temperatures going into the creek, versus a surface type of retention. ... We felt we've exhausted every issue with the environmental reports we've already done."

Along with concerns about runoff and pollution entering Miller Creek, Crawford-Nichols and other petition-signers question whether wetland delineation work on the nearly 7-acre property included a wetland in the northernmost section. It did, according to GEI Consultants wetland expert Rob Peterson, who performed the delineation. He said the boundaries for the surveyed land are illustrated in a report filed with the city.

Pressure on cities to generate tax revenue can lead to environmental harm, something already seen in the highly developed mall area and its damage to Miller Creek, said Dave Zentner, a Duluth resident and a former member of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) citizens board.

Miller Creek has for two decades been on an MPCA list of impaired waterways; in 2022 the agency cited poor health of aquatic life and high chloride concentrations as the issues. A $1 million restoration project is expected to improve the stream's temperature and ecology by altering its channels.

"You can't honestly step before City Council and say this project will kill Miller Creek," Zentner said. "But you can definitely say this is an impaired watershed, and an EAW is the minimum initial process in an environmental review. We should not be doing business in Minnesota near an impaired resource without requiring an EAW."

The Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America supports an EAW.

Chapter president Julie O'Leary said the hotel will be built in an area where many wetlands have already been filled and developed; an area prone to intense flooding.

"With the heavier rains and wetter conditions climate change is bringing, we need to think differently than we have in the past about potential harms and ask questions anticipating those changes," she said.

Mailey said Kinseth expects to begin sitework on what would be its second Duluth property in June, depending on the City Council's decision. An EAW could take up to 10 months and cost the company about $50,000, pushing the opening out a year, he said, but regardless of the Monday decision, the company will move ahead with its plans.

The Duluth City Council changed the zoning for the land the hotel would sit on in 2009 for a project that wasn't ultimately built. City officials have said it's a rare example of commercial and rural residential zones sitting side by side.