Neighbors who live near the St. Croix Business Center in Lakeland are protesting plans to expand operations at the center, saying it would dramatically change the use of the property.
The business center, completed in 2000, currently is home to Premium Moving & Storage, Metro Dentalcare and Surf and Turf Direct.
Owner Jacki Aldridge has applied for an amended conditional-use permit for the property to allow for up to three additional tenants and to permit internal division of the building’s warehouse space. She also wants to add a new portable loading dock on the west side of the existing warehouse space and overnight parking for tenant service trucks in an enclosed fenced area.
The Lakeland City Council is expected to vote on the amended CUP application at their meeting Tuesday night.
The 2.7-acre parcel, located at 44 St. Croix Trail S., is zoned retail business, and Aldridge’s plans do not require a variance or for the land to be rezoned, said Lakeland City Clerk Michelle Elsner.
Residents who live near the business center in the city’s Elmwood neighborhood have raised a number of concerns about the plans since they were first considered by the Lakeland City Council last fall. Among them: increased large-truck traffic, diesel noise and pollution, and increased operations at the site.
One of the most vocal critics has been Julie Thron, wife of Lakeland City Council member Mike Thron; the couple live directly behind the St. Croix Business Center.
“It’s just not compatible with the neighborhood, especially with the homeowners being so close,” Julie Thron said. “There’s no buffer. It would come right back into our backyard. All of our homes are split level, and the main floor sits above the 6-foot fence, so we can clearly see into the property, and the headlights shine into our windows at night.”
One of the biggest concerns is potential diesel exhaust from moving trucks, she said.
“They say they will turn the trucks off and not let them idle, but with a diesel truck in the winter, do you really think that’s going to happen? I don’t think so.”
A former tenant of the building, Anchors Aweigh boat storage, recently moved to Afton; Julie Thron said the boat-storage business was a good neighbor because “it had no activity from late fall to early spring as boats are stored for the winter.”
Premium Moving & Storage, on the other hand, will operate year round, and they have stated publicly that they want to grow the business, she said.
Aldridge, who lives in Naples, Fla., said she has no plans to expand the business center’s footprint or scope of use.
“But we need to adapt to attract new tenants and meet the needs of our current tenants,” she said. “Costs keep going up. I had a 26 percent increase in my property taxes alone this year, and I need to stay financially viable if we’re going to keep the business center open.”
Jim Gasperini, Aldridge’s attorney, said he expects the Lakeland City Council to approve her application. “This is not a substantial change in use at all,” he said. “What they are proposing is allowed under the city’s existing zoning ordinances.”
He said Aldridge has already given “considerable concessions to all of the neighbors and adjoining properties,” including an extensive buffer zone on the west side of the property.
“She has proven to be a good neighbor, and she will continue to do so,” he said. “There haven’t been any complaints over the past 20 years that I am aware of, and she doesn’t anticipate that there will be any in the future.”
The business center’s new dock would be oriented north-south “so there will not be any lights shining toward the westerly neighbors,” he said. Truck parking also will be east-facing, he said.
Hours of operation will continue to be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, plus 24-hour-a-day administrative use, Aldridge said.
Mayor Joe Paiement said the council has strongly encouraged Aldridge and the nearby residents “to meet and try to arrive at a mutually acceptable set of conditions that would allow for a change in use of the property. I continue to think that that is the best resolution. I’m still optimistic that they might be able to do that.”
Thron said attempts to reach a resolution have not been successful. She said many residents of the Elmwood neighborhood have lived in their homes for more than 30 years and have invested in them, “relying on the business center to operate as it has for the last 20 years.”
In addition to diesel-truck exhaust fumes and lighting, neighbors are worried about decreased property values, increased noise, visual impact, hours of operation and increased truck traffic on Washington County 18/St. Croix Trail, she said.
The road is a narrow corridor with three roundabouts, one of which is located by Afton-Lakeland Elementary School, and has heavily used bike/walking paths on both sides of the road, she said.
“If this goes through, we’ll have 26-foot diesel trucks crossing the bike/walking path on the west side of County Road 18 to enter/exit the St. Croix Business Center,” she said. “This type of business proposed by definition is a ‘truck depot,’ which should be in an industrial park — not adjacent to a residential neighborhood.”
The city’s zoning firm Swanson/Haskamp, which originally handled the amended CUP application, no longer is under contract with the city; zoning is being done on an interim basis by Rum River Construction Consultants, the company under contract to do Lakeland’s building inspections.
Three new zoning companies will be discussed by the Lakeland City Council at Tuesday’s meeting, Elsner said.
The nearby neighbors, who call themselves the Concerned Elmwood Residents group, hope the council will deny the application. Twenty-four years ago, group members helped defeat plans for a 4,000-square-foot convenience store, gas station, car wash and auto-repair shop that was proposed for the property.
“We love that the business center is there,” Thron said. “It’s a beautiful building, and it’s an asset to the city. But there have just been too many changes and inconsistences with this new proposal. We feel it does nothing to enhance the community. Rather, it diminishes it. This type of business belongs in an industrial park – not in close proximity to residential homes. A new business proposal should be compatible with adjacent properties and have minimal impact.”