Bank gets parking variances over neighborhood protests

First Western Bank & Trust received permission from the Minot Planning Commission Monday to scale back on city-required parking for its building addition. However, neighbors hope to reverse that decision in an appeal to the Minot City Council next Tuesday.

The commission voted 9-3 to approve a parking variance from 131 required spots to 110 spots. The commission previously had approved a variance to 105 spots, but at that time, it was thought that city ordinance required only 113 spots. Neighbors informed that city that the 113 spots was a miscalculation.

The architect had provided net square footage, determined by the amount of occupied space, rather than gross square footage, calculated based on building size. In response to the error, First Western requested the new variance.

Jon Backes, attorney for First Western, noted that the parking variance is needed to occupy the $6 million building addition that has been erected.

“It wasn’t until the building was completed that we learned of this problem. We are here today to try to find a resolution to that problem,” he said.

“I think it’s setting bad precedent, at a time when we are growing in Minot, that you can build what you want and ask for forgiveness after the fact,” said neighbor Mike Lucy. “A mistake was made. No one, not anybody, has brought a solution other than a solution that’s going to affect us as a neighborhood. They are throwing 100 percent of the mistake on us as a neighborhood.”

Commission chairman John Zimmerman said the reduced parking is realistic given the use of the building and the bank’s actual parking need.

“In this case, I am very comfortable in granting the variance,” he said.

The commission approved the variance based on hardship to the bank in constructing additional parking given the area’s topography next to a hill. The commission also determined that a variance would not harm the public.

Residents objected to that logic, claiming that their property values and use of their properties would be negatively affected.

“Over-building on the lot is what caused them to ask for a variance, not topographical issues,” Lucy said.

Commissioner Travis Zablotney couldn’t justify the hardship, either. He noted the topography didn’t stop the bank from building an addition.

“It’s being presented to us that we have exceptional topography,” he said. “I am extremely challenged to find that as a reason.”

Even if the topography was level, he said, the bank doesn’t have the space to provide the required 131 parking spaces.

Neighbors objected that the 131 required spaces is based on the building addition being considered offices rather than a bank. Bank officials said the space would be used for bank support positions, a conference room, lunchroom and other non-customer functions. The ordinance requires three parking spaces per 1,000 feet of office space compared to four parking spaces per 1,000 feet of bank space. At the higher requirement, First Western would need 150 parking spots.

First Western also asked for a reduction in the required size of the parking spaces from 10 feet to 9 feet, which the commission granted. When neighbors objected based on commission precedent, city engineer Lance Meyer explained that the commission hasn’t allowed a reduction for new developments but existing properties must be looked at differently.

Bank president Rich Campbell said 110 spaces is adequate based on modern-day banking. More people bank using electronic devices, direct deposit and ATMs and don’t visit the bank building. A recent monitoring of customer parking found that of 33 available spaces for customers, there were always at least 12 open spaces, with the average being 22 open spaces.

“That shows we have sufficient spots,” he said.

He added that there are no plans to increase staff at the main bank. Some existing staff will relocate to the addition. With the opening of a north Minot branch office, the bank will be shifting employees to that site and reducing staffing at the main bank, he said. The bank currently has 67 full- and part-time staff, and not all work the same time periods, he said.

The first floor of the building addition is underground parking with 20 spaces. With that parking, Campbell said, the bank will be able to move 20 cars off the streets and alleviate congestion in the neighborhood. There also are four above-ground, off-street parking spots for employees who will use the new addition. He said that would accommodate the current on-street parking by employees, which residents described as 12 to 15 vehicles in their neighborhood.

Lucy said neighbors developed a mistrust of bank officials after the bank failed to follow through on promised actions in 2013. Based on those promises, some residents had relented from their opposition to the bank addition. The city council had approved variances to allow the bank’s expansion in March 2013, with the understanding that neighborhood conflicts had been resolved. Earlier this year, neighbors sued the city over that action, stating the council acted illegally in taking up the bank’s request after the planning commission put the matter on hold. That case remains before the court.