Editorial: When zoning lines are drawn, they should mean something

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The campus of North Dakota State University and surrounding residential neighborhoods have long been a set of fault lines, fraught with tensions between homeowners and developers intent on building big apartments catering to the growing demand for student housing. It's a stubborn dynamic. The most recent example is the feud between the Roosevelt Elementary School neighborhood and Roers Development, which seeks to rebuild the Newman Center in combination with new housing, including a six-story apartment building. If approved, the project will be built at the intersection of 12th Avenue North and University Drive—kitty-corner from NDSU's main gate.

Neighbors don't object to the new, enlarged Newman Center, nor a 29-unit apartment aimed at students who want to live in a religious community. The flashpoint is the associated 107-unit apartment. As originally proposed, the six-story apartment had 278 apartments. Despite the reduction, the proposed apartment still would have three times the population density of the level allowed under the zoning classification for the area. Roers is effectively seeking an exception to that density cap.

If granted, it would be the latest in a series of cases where developers have persuaded City Hall to bend its zoning laws to accommodate a new shiny building project. In fact, developers have gotten the message from city leaders that it's OK to buy up land and propose a project that defies zoning, knowing City Hall will take them off the hook by granting an exception.

No wonder homeowners are asking why the city even bothers to have planning and zoning regulations if they can be dismissed with what amounts to a wink and a nod to the developer. City officials seem to regard zoning maps as guidelines, while homeowners would like to believe they are etched in stone.

The repeated clashes between developers and homeowners in older neighborhoods like Roosevelt seemed to have been largely settled two years ago, when a compromise was struck regarding an apartment development in the Ponyland area of far north Fargo. The developer in that project, Roers, agreed to scale back the size of the apartments and add single-family homes to reduce traffic flows, winning the acceptance of neighbors.

More broadly, Mayor Tim Mahoney pledged to work with NDSU and to do a better job of reducing the impact on surrounding neighborhoods. "We've heard loud and clear from all of you that we need to figure that out," the mayor said.

Clearly, City Hall still has more work to do. In the near term, city officials should work with Roers and the neighbors to come up with an acceptable project. Longer term, city officials must do a better job designating—and communicating clearly to the public—areas near NDSU where more intensive development will be acceptable. Already, an area a few blocks west of the Newman Center has been slated for bigger apartments. Once lines are drawn, they should mean something. If the city isn't careful, old neighborhoods like Roosevelt will lose their elementary schools, and homeowners will flee, leaving large areas to become blighted. Nobody wants that.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.