NORTH MANKATO — A North Mankato resident is suing the city, alleging the North Mankato City Council didn't follow local and state laws when it approved a dynamic sign for Holy Rosary Catholic Church last month.
Barb Church, a longtime citizen watchdog who regularly attends city meetings, believes the city did not follow state requirements to issue a variance to its own code when the council signed off on the sign at a May 20 public meeting.
The Free Press recently published a submitted column from Church on the issue, where she argues the council should rescind the variance and consider changing its ordinance "only after carefully considering the consequences of making such a change."
"She feels it's important the city of North Mankato comply with their own ordinances and rules as far as granting variances," said Karl Friedrichs, Church's attorney.
Friedrichs filed the lawsuit Wednesday against the city and Holy Rosary. Chris Kennedy, assistant attorney for the city of North Mankato, said North Mankato has turned over the case to the League of Minnesota Cities as part of its insurance agreement. The League is expected to reinforce the city's belief local officials followed the law in issuing the variance.
"Variances aren't banned in Minnesota," Kennedy said. "There's certain restrictions and certain hoops you have to follow, and we believe the church met all of the requirements to be granted a variance."
Holy Rosary officials declined to comment Thursday afternoon.
The church asked the city for a variance earlier this year as part of a larger renovation to the front of its building, which was built in 1950.
The so-called dynamic sign — a digital signboard which can change or scroll through messages — isn't normally allowed in residential neighborhoods. Yet city ordinance also allows churches and schools to have lighted signs in residential areas.
The council's decision came with stipulations. Holy Rosary must have a black and white display. It can't change messages more than once every three hours, can't be too bright and must be turned off an hour after sunset.
Residents near the church, located at 525 Grant Ave., opposed the sign as a potential eyesore. Father Paul van de Crommert told city officials he had learned from the sign designers the new sign wouldn't be lit brighter than a TV glare from a nearby home.
State statutes set how cities can issue variances for properties depending on whether the variance is a reasonable use of the property, due to unique circumstances about the property and whether it will alter the "essential character of the locality."
Church argues the sign variance doesn't meet the second or third requirements. She's asking the city to turn over all records and documentation related to the variance, as well as rescind the variance.
City Administrator John Harrenstein said council members and the planning commission acted on the advice of attorneys when they considered the variance.
While he believes the city followed local and state regulations, Harrenstein didn't rule out a potential ordinance change to address dynamic signs in the future as several businesses have put up the signs with little to no public complaint.
"My goal is an amicable resolution that allows the church to have the sign they want and a zoning code that is supported by both the residents and the institutions in this community," Harrenstein said.
Church also alleges the city didn't publish a legal notice informing residents about the North Mankato Planning Commission's May 9 meeting, when the commission discussed the variance and recommended the council approve Holy Rosary's request. The Free Press published that legal notice on April 30.