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Should non-profits be allowed in commercial zones? Worthington considering options

The discussion stemmed from a city council decision last fall regarding the former Shopko property.

Worthington City Hall
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WORTHINGTON — A city council decision designed to prevent Independent School District 518 from purchasing the former Shopko property has sparked consideration of how and to what extent non-profit land use should be allowed within commercial zones in Worthington.

Hearing that the school district was possibly interested in purchasing Shopko for use as the new community education facility, the city council passed an interim ordinance in September 2020 that would allow the city to study the impact of having the site removed from property tax rolls.

A couple weeks later, staff raised the concern that other non-profits have been granted conditional use permits (CUPs) in Worthington's commercial zones, so denying one to the school district could look like favoritism. Hearing this concern, the council passed a temporary moratorium on non-profit land use in commercial zones, giving staff time to come up with possible changes to the zoning ordinance that would promote both equity in granting permits and prudence in planning economic growth.

After several months of research, city staff brought a possible option to the Worthington Planning Commission at its Tuesday meeting.

The commission considered creating an overlay district designating specific areas (such as the Oxford Street corners) where no new non-profit land use would be allowed. This would create a more objective standard for awarding CUPs in commercial zones, explained Jason Brisson, Assistant City Administrator/Economic Development Director.


If the city continues to have an arbitrary system of awarding CUPs, he said, it could be vulnerable to a lawsuit.

"I'm just worried that one of these days, our luck is going to run out," he said, noting that this is not the first time a non-profit has been denied land use in a commercial zone, while others are allowed to operate within the same geographic area.

Commissioner Drake Hagen said he's not concerned about a lawsuit, saying it's unlikely the city would be sued, and even if it was, damages would probably be small.

Brisson clarified that the concern is less about the financial impact of litigation and more about how it could affect the city's image.

Commissioners understood both sides of the issue, noting that nonprofits are essential for the community to thrive, but it's also important to plan for economic growth.

"I think we need to protect our commercial space," said commissioner Chris Kielblock.

"At some point, we have to think strategically about economics," added commissioner Erin Schutte Wadzinski.

The commission did not take action, but the discussion gave staff some direction to pursue. Staff will have a similar conversation with the city council at its Aug. 23 meeting, and plans to have a decision made before the moratorium expires this fall.

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