Lame-duck St. Paul City Council rushes to finish line with bevy of legal amendments

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Before he steps down from public office in January, St. Paul City Council Member Russel Balenger wants to rename a section of Concordia Avenue for the old Rondo neighborhood.

City Council Member Chris Tolbert, the outgoing chair the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, hopes to make it easier for the city to sell surplus land to neighboring property owners in cases where the buyer “will make best use of the property for the well-being of the community.”

As one of her last acts in office, outgoing Council President Amy Brendmoen plans to vote to reduce the city’s overall number of tobacco shop licenses, limiting the field through attrition.

Also before the lame-duck council are proposed ordinance amendments making it easier to apply for outdoor amplified sound permits, enable the city to assess building owners for litter pick-up in downtown skyways, and allow planter beds in public boulevards — a widespread practice that technically runs afoul of city ordinance.

With four of the seven St. Paul City Council members bowing out of office at the end of the year, the council is looking to take up a bevy of last-minute changes to city ordinances, from long-awaited housekeeping items to some more fundamental policy statements about the city’s collective values.

“There’s way more than usual,” said Brendmoen, in a recent interview. “I will call them ‘tidying up’ ordinances — things that council members are looking to get passed before their term is up. None of them are particularly contentious.”

Here’s an overview:


The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday is poised to adopt a resolution to begin an “adult use cannabis zoning study,” a first step toward determining where cannabis sellers can be situated in the city.

Under state law, local governments may not require additional licensing from cannabis businesses beyond a state license, but they may register cannabis businesses and enforce certain zoning regulations that limit their locations. Cities can collect registration fees and 10% of the tax revenue from the sale of cannabis products.

The zoning study will consider potential zoning ordinance amendments, zoning code definitions and distance requirements. The goal is to have the study approved by the St. Paul Planning Commission by May and in front of the city council for final approval next June.

Tobacco shop licenses

The city council on Wednesday is likely to reduce the number of available tobacco shop licenses through attrition, meaning existing tobacco shops would be allowed to keep their licenses but not transfer them. Tobacco shop licenses would be reduced from 150 to 100, which is right around the city’s existing number of active licenses. Tobacco product shop licenses for flavored tobacco and electronic delivery devices would drop from 25 to 15.

In addition, penalties for underage tobacco sales, sales of single cigarettes or sales of flavored tobacco other than specialty shops would switch to criminal misdemeanors, up from $500 to 1,000 fines, license suspensions and revocations. Tobacco vending machine licenses also would be eliminated, though you’d be hard-pressed to find one in St. Paul.

The changes, sponsored by six council members, are supported by the Tobacco-Free Alliance and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota and opposed by the Minnesota Association of Retailers.

Micro-dwellings on church grounds

Also Wednesday, the council is expected to vote to allow micro-units of housing on church grounds as an “accessory use” to religious institutions. Working with the organization Settled, St. Paul in 2021 allowed a “sacred settlement” of six units at the Mosaic Christian Community Church of the Nazarene on Wheelock Parkway on a temporary basis.

Following recent changes in state law modeled on Settled, the council will adjust the zoning code to mirror state statute. A majority of the units must be set aside for the chronically homeless. The amendment is sponsored by Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Member Nelsie Yang.

Skyway litter pick-up

When a downtown St. Paul building owner fails to pick up litter, remove graffiti or fix a broken window in the skyway system, the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections may soon have the power to issue abatement orders. Under a proposed ordinance amendment, DSI would have the authority to hire a contractor to fix the problem and then assess the building owner’s property taxes.

Building owners will be required to submit a skyway video surveillance plan to DSI by March 31 of each year. The amendment, sponsored by Council Member Rebecca Noecker, will come before the council Wednesday for final adoption. It’s supported by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

Amplified sound permits

In St. Paul, it may soon get a tad easier to get noisy.

Organized events seeking variances from the city for outdoor music and amplified sound above the city’s stipulated sound levels currently have to appear before the St. Paul City Council for permission, a time-consuming process that rarely draws any testimony in opposition. Sound-level variance applications must be submitted 60 days in advance.

The Department of Safety and Inspections is already responsible for assessing each sound level variance request and making recommendations to the city council. An ordinance amendment before the city council would allow DSI staff to approve the requests administratively through a permit process, reserving public hearings only for requests that do not meet permit requirements.

In addition, St. Paul Parks and Recreation would have jurisdiction over issuing and enforcing amplified sound permits in the city’s parks. City staff noted that many other cities approve sound level variance requests through an administrative process.

The Highland District Council, which supports the changes, noted it had received a single comment from a resident about amplified sound in 15 years. A final vote on the amendment, which is sponsored by Brendmoen and Yang, is likely Wednesday.

Disposition of city property

Under St. Paul’s “disposition of city property” ordinance, the city can sell unused city land by public auction or through sealed bids, and if that’s unsuccessful, through a private negotiated sale. In recent years city officials have found that those methods aren’t always the simplest and most efficient ways of getting surplus land into the hands of responsible owners, especially when it comes to transferring remnant land to contiguous property owners.

An ordinance amendment sponsored by Tolbert and Noecker would give the city council more leeway in determining how to dispose of city land, provided that a staff report first explains whether the property is only usable by contiguous property owners or is marketable.

Staff would also need to verify that the property could not be used by a different city department, and “a potential buyer’s use of the property and financial benefit to owning the property, and any economic or cultural benefits to the surrounding community.” A sale could potentially take place below market value, if other sales efforts have failed. Disposition would require five council votes.

A public hearing is scheduled Wednesday.

Raised planter beds in public boulevards

If you’re confused about what kinds of plantings and ornamental structures are allowed in the boulevard in front of your home, you’re in good company.

St. Paul’s municipal code currently bars placement of raised planter beds in the public right-of-way, though it’s not uncommon to see residents flout those rules — knowingly or unknowingly — and do it anyway.

Council Member Chris Tolbert recently sponsored an ordinance amendment that would allow temporary, removable storage containers in the public right-of-way with a $20 encroachment permit, provided that the structure is no more than 12 inches tall. A public hearing is scheduled Wednesday.

Rondo Avenue

Before construction of Interstate 94 eliminated structures by the hundreds, a historically-Black community called St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood home. Rondo Avenue, which ran from Griggs Street to Kellogg Boulevard, was renamed Concordia Avenue in 1964.

A proposal sponsored by Council Member Russel Balenger would reclaim some of that history by renaming Concordia Avenue between Griggs and Kellogg, reverting it back to Rondo Avenue in recognition of the community that lived there in the mid-1900s. The name change was unanimously supported by the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission on Nov. 20.

The name change has also drawn the support of Brian Friedrich, president of Concordia University, who wrote in a Nov. 10 letter to the city council that he hoped the name change would “perpetually memorialize the importance of the Rondo community to the city of St. Paul.”

Balenger, who had originally submitted the proposal as an ordinance, plans to resubmit it to the council as a resolution.

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