Planning Commission debates new building height rules

At four stories, the Federated Insurance headquarters is the tallest building in downtown Owatonna. The city is considering relaxing its zoning ordinance to make it easier to build more buildings of the same height or more in the central business district. (William Morris/People’s Press)

By: William Morris
August 10, 2017

OWATONNA — When it comes to buildings, how tall is too tall?

It’s a question with economic, aesthetic and public safety angles, and all were considered Tuesday during the meeting of the city’s planning commission. The city’s community development department is floating the idea of relaxing the city’s current zoning rules, especially in downtown, where currently developers need a conditional use permit to build higher than three stories.

Community Development Specialist Greg Kruschke said that code harks back to an earlier era of building design.

“When a lot of zoning codes were constructed, three stories was a big deal,” he said. “Then all of a sudden when you went to four stories, the building codes and everything had a huge shift. Well, there’s still changes when you go to four stories, but it’s not as big now, because those buildings all have to have a sprinkler system in them, and there aren’t as many concerns from the building side of things going over three stories.”

Currently, downtown Owatonna is filled largely with two- and three-story structures. The tallest is the headquarters of Federated Insurance, at four stories. The commission has discussed making it easier to build more buildings like that several times in recent months, and on Tuesday, most commissioners voiced support for a change.

“Allowing someone to go higher, it’s growth,” said commissioner Matt Gillard. “It’s growth for the city. To me it makes sense.”

At this point, the discussion is academic. To date, no developers have approached the city with proposals to build more than three stories. But Kruschke said the city wants to be proactive rather than reactive should such a request arise. He also noted that it’s very likely the city, which has been striving to redevelop downtown Owatonna for years, would approve such a request, but only after inflicting the extra expense of a conditional use application upon the developer.

“What deserves the additional council review, and what should just be permitted as a right?” he said.

One limitation on building height is the Owatonna Fire Department, which currently has ladder trucks that can reach up to 100 feet in the air. That would be enough to deal with a building of approximately six stories, Kruschke said.

Commission President Alex Meillier said that makes it a reasonable threshold, and developers could still request additional stories through a conditional use permit.

“If someone says, why did you make it five stories? ‘Well, we thought it was a good height,’” he said. “Six makes sense because that’s how high the fire department can go.”

With the commission voicing favor, Kruschke said city staff will now bring something for them to formally vote to recommend to the city council.

Even if the council does elect to change the ordinance, Kruschke said it is economics, more than regulation, that will spur multistory development downtown.

“At the end of the day, the only thing that will regulate this is the market will drive everything,” he said. “You’re not going to come into downtown Owatonna and build a five-story building on spec, with no tenants.”

But if the numbers do add up for such a development, he said, the city doesn’t want to stand in the way.

“Our goal is to open up the option, and if somebody wants to do it, the market will drive the request, but it’s not the city limiting what can occur,” he said.

William Morris got his start in the newspaper trade as a recurring editorial intern in Wisconsin and has been writing about business, government and crime at the Owatonna People’s Press since 2015. He now splits his time working with the newspaper and as Associate Editor for Forge.

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