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Rochester reviews vetting process for projects

Rochester officials are taking a closer look at the project vetting process after developers raised concerns about fair treatment by some advisory boards and committees.

The Rochester City Council unanimously agreed at a dinner meeting before their regular meeting on Monday to take stock of a dozen or so groups that help steer development in the city, from planning and zoning to historic preservation, and find ways to improve them, City Council President Randy Staver said.

Murmurs that the existing framework for project approval doesn’t work smoothly enough provides a platform for a holistic overview, he said. First, the council will revisit the missions of each of the dozen or so boards it appoints. Then, they’ll focus on ways to better prepare the volunteers that fill them.

The council asked the city to set aside between $5,000 and $10,000 in next year’s budget to support training and education for members of certain groups. Particularly for committees that deal with more complex issues, like planning and zoning, one-off classes on related topics, like land use, could help ease challenges.

“Certainly the council appoints all of the individuals and creates the committees by ordinance, so it’s our responsibility to watch over the activities of some of the advisory boards and commissions,” Staver said. “We need to follow up on that.”

Rochester City Manager Stevan Kvenvold said he brought the issue to council members after hearing secondhand that some developers felt cast aside by a few city-appointed volunteer groups, including the Committee on Urban Design and Environment and the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The council puts a lot of emphasis on the permanent staff about customer service,” Kvenvold said. “These are volunteer commissions and committees which don’t get the same sort of message, and perhaps the council should be reviewing that.”

A couple of council members suggested they’d heard similar criticisms that some groups overstepped their designated roles, but others propped up the importance of neighborhood input – particularly as Rochester braces for an onslaught of development.

A multibillion-dollar downtown build-out, the Destination Medical Center project, officially kicked off earlier this year and is expected to drive commercial and residential development over the next two decades. The effort aims to expand Rochester’s workforce by 35,000 to 45,000 during that span.

Already, simmering interest in the city from developers in the region and around the world has begun to sprout a range of issues Rochester officials haven’t had to weigh before.

Given the anticipated development boom, it’s important city staffers and the City Council can lean on commissions, committees and boards to spearhead a comprehensive vetting process that paves the way for city approvals.

“It’s just not realistic to think that by the time [a proposal] gets to the City Council level that we have the necessary bandwidth to get into all those sorts of details,” Staver said. “We really must rely on the advisory boards and commissions to vet some of the gory details and then give us some guidance.”

The City Council is expected to hash out the issue at a meeting in the near future.

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