The Saint Paul Planning Commission voted 10-3 on October 29 to reject a request to change the underlying zoning in order to use a Macalester-Groveland duplex at 1329-1331 Lincoln Ave. as a triplex, which means a longtime basement apartment cannot be used for housing.

A majority of commissioners said the change would be illegal spot zoning. It also would have opened the possibility of allowing the structure to be torn down and replaced with a larger multifamily building.

Earlier in October, the commission voted 9-1 to grant a legal nonconforming use request for a Summit Hill duplex at 1124-1126 Lincoln to be used as a triplex, which will allow a basement apartment there.

Such requests could become a thing of the past as the city studies ways to more easily add housing in neighborhoods zoned for one- to four-unit dwellings. One recommendation would eliminate Saint Paul’s longstanding conversion guidelines for duplexes and triplexes. The guidelines are typically used in cases where an extra unit has existed for a long time and is later identified during a city inspection.

One argument for eliminating the guidelines and simplifying the conversion process is that if additional units meet city building codes, they should be allowed.

The request for 1329-1331 Lincoln had support from the Macalester-Groveland Community Council on the condition the zoning was changed from two-family residential to townhouse residential. The property owners, Ramsey Hill residents Gary and Catherine Ballman, asked for conversion to residential multifamily zoning. The district council wanted to see the Ballmans be able to rent out the finished basement unit if it meets building codes. No neighbors had objected.

One argument for eliminating the guidelines and simplifying the conversion process is that if additional units meet city building codes, they should be allowed.

The building was constructed in 1927 and the Ballmans have owned it for three years. It is not known when the basement unit was added. Recent inspections indicate it has been considered a duplex.

The legal nonconforming use request for 1124-1126 Lincoln was approved by the Planning Commission on October 1 despite a recommendation of denial from planning staff. The change was sought by Larry and Tamara Kuenster, who have owned the property since 1998. The dwelling was built in 1923. It is unclear when it was converted to a triplex.

The Kuensters said they purchased the property with the understanding that it was a triplex. All three units were leased at that time and have been leased with no gaps in occupancy since then.

Records on the property vary. A Truth in Sale of Housing report in 1995 indicated that the property was considered a duplex. Past certificates of occupancy from 2008 and 2014 also indicated it was a duplex. A code inspection in May 2021 found that the basement unit was not legally recognized by the city. However, county records indicate that the property was considered to be a triplex and was taxed as such.

The Kuensters submitted testimony outlining the property conditions and their arguments for approval of legal nonconforming use status. The basement apartment has legal egress windows and meets building codes. 

The granting of a legal nonconforming use requires meeting five conditions of the city’s duplex and triplex conversion guidelines, and seven conditions for nonconforming use status. The conversion met all but one condition.

— Jane McClure

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