The Fremont City Council during its Tuesday evening meeting voted to introduce and hold the first reading of an ordinance that would shift the zoning of a parcel of land within the proposed SunRidge Place housing development on the east side of Fremont.
The approximately 4.8 acres of land, located near the corner of E. Military Avenue and Luther Road, is currently zoned as RR Rural Residential and with the passage of the ordinance would be zoned as GC General Commercial.
SunRidge Place is a proposed multi-use development of Don Peterson & Associates, which has plans for approximately 240 units of apartments, 75 townhomes, 46 duplexes and 112 single family homes.
Along with residential housing, the proposed development is also planned to include commercial space.
While the ordinance was introduced, by a 5-3 vote from the Council, a second and third vote and reading will be needed for the ordinance to be passed. It would be implemented 15 days after the passage.
Councilmembers Linda McClain, Susan Jacobus, and Matt Bechtel voted no.
During the public hearing on the matter several members of the public raised concerns over the proposed zoning shift, citing concerns of potential student safety issues, especially due to the potential for increased traffic in the area.
“We are in a unique position where we can control the development around our middle school (Fremont Middle School), and the main issues about the commercial property would be the added traffic. Single family homes, duplexes, and residential apartments do not pose the same safety risks a convenience store or any other commercial property will,” local resident Mark Jensen said. “Anyone who has been out there to drop off or pick up children understands the dangers of the traffic and congestion in the area, and these safety issues would only increase with the addition of a commercial property.”
Dave Mitchell of Yost Law Firm, who spoke on behalf of Don Peterson & Associates at the meeting, addressed the concerns about traffic brought forth by members of the public.
He noted that the proposed zoning ordinance is just the first step in the use planning for the property, and that many steps – including a traffic and drainage study – would have to take place before any development begins on the property.
“As far as traffic concerns, the school has in fact weighed in on this issue and there is no evidence to indicate that one business or one retail area is going to adversely impact that entire corridor,” Mitchell added. “The traffic intensity in that area takes place in the mornings and again in the afternoons and subsides dramatically just as it does in all other areas of our community where we have schools, special events, and church gatherings from time to time.”
Along with the concerns about student safety related to increased traffic in the area, another local resident, Barbara Fanning, cited concerns about the potential for human trafficking due to the proposed commercial property’s proximity to Fremont Middle School and Highway 275.
“I have attended several conferences in and out of the state of Nebraska and the stories I have heard are horrific, and a convenience store quick shop built near a middle school — predators could sit at the convenience store and watch the children as they are walking to and from the school,” she said. “Do you want anything like this to happen to a child in Fremont?”
Councilmember Jacobus also raised concerns about the potential for human trafficking involved with developing a commercial property near Fremont Middle School, along with the proximity to Highway 275.
“This four lane, with a convenience store, with a middle school — you are creating a perfect storm. We already have issues here in Fremont with this, we already have runaways that get involved with this…” she said. “When you have 1,000 students you have to stop and take a look at what the enticement is; this is a huge issue in the state of Nebraska. We have to stop and take a look at the vulnerability of our students.”
Council President Scott Schaller, who ultimately voted to introduce the ordinance, said the Council has been working with the Coalition on Human Trafficking to address the issue locally.
“We started working with the organization for human trafficking of students in town, the librarian is starting programs with the school systems and a lot of that stuff is being addressed,” he said. “A lot of that stuff is relevant, I mean it is a serious issue in the state of Nebraska, I’m not going to take away from that.”
He also pointed to a number of other gas stations and convenience stores throughout Fremont and their proximity to areas where youth congregate.
“I can understand a truck stop out by Valley or even Sapp Brothers out north of town, I can understand that,” he said. “Most of these small gas stations, where there are gas stations on Military, on 23rd, on Bell Street, on Broad Street they are all within places where there are youth. There are parks and churches and everything else, we have those gas stations all over town. So most of those gas stations are feeding that area or development in Fremont and that is generally what they are for.”
Another issue raised by local resident Brad Yerger focused on a perceived conflict of interest in regards to Mayor Scott Getzschman’s landlord-tenant relationship with Don Peterson & Associates’ Marlin Brabec. Getzschman was the deciding vote to amend the future land-use plan to designate the property as General Commercial at the City Council meeting on Jan. 30. He said if it is a conflict of interest, Getzschman’s vote should be rescinded and therefore change the land-use map result.
“(The land-use map result) would either stand or fail depending on (Getzschman’s) vote so I would like the city attorney to go on public record tonight as to what were his findings and did that vote stand or fail. ...”
Getzschman and Oliver Glass, who is currently serving as temporary legal counsel for the city, addressed the potential conflict of interest.
“Without getting into in-depth legal analysis, the answer that I came up with independently of the attorney for which the mayor intends to read his statement, was that no, a conflict does not exist,” Glass said.
Mayor Getzschman also addressed the issue, entering into the record a letter from attorney Thomas Huston of Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather LLP providing the firm’s legal opinion on the matter.
“Marlin Brabec is a principal of Don Peterson & Associates, Mr. Brabec is currently leasing a house from you pursuant to a lease. You asked for guidance whether this landlord-tenant relationship constitutes a conflict of interest which would disqualify you from voting on this matter. The short answer is no,” Getzschman recited from the letter. “Since you have no financial interest in the rezoning, you have no conflict of interest which warrants an abstention on this matter. It is our opinion that your landlord-tenant relationship with Mr. Brabec is an immaterial interest. Mr. Brabec’s obligation to pay rent under the residential lease for the house is not dependent upon any public vote or change or zone application.”