Tough sell: Mayor's letter aims to clear zoning hurdle in Thompson

Pacific Avenue in Thompson, North Dakota. On the western side is a grain elevator, and on the eastern side is a combination of businesses and homes. In May, the Thompson City Council agreed on a zoning map of the city that deems the houses and businesses along Pacific commercial properties. That's presented a problem for potential homebuyers here, but a letter from Mayor Desmond Sporbert has seemingly fixed it. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

THOMPSON, N.D. -- The Swenson family might not have been able to sell their house in Thompson this summer.

That’s because a new zoning map City Council members agreed to in May zoned the family’s home -- and about a dozen others along Pacific Avenue -- as commercial property. The new designation means the house’s owner might not be allowed to rebuild if it were destroyed. That makes mortgage lenders wary, which makes them less likely to finance a buyer. No buyer, no sale, and the Swensons might have been stuck.

“It essentially values your property at nothing because you can’t get financing for it,” said the Swenson’s real estate agent, Nate Anderson. “It needs to end up being a cash offer to close the deal.”

Anderson, who later added that some types of financing would have been an option regardless, said a letter from the city is the reason the family is still able to sell the house.

In the letter, Mayor Desmond Sporbert wrote that, if it were destroyed, the house could be rebuilt as a single-family dwelling via a conditional use permit. Anderson said the buyer’s lender was not interested in financing the purchase of the Swenson’s home without that letter.


The letter, he stressed, fixed the problem.

“My people can still sell,” Anderson said.

Applications for a permit cost $150, and, technically, Council members have the authority to deny a homeowner’s request if they feel it doesn’t meet a policy set out in city code. Council members are asked to consider how the property would affect people living and working next to it, plus property or improvements adjacent to it, among a handful of other criteria.

“My intent would be for them to be able to rebuild the house,” Sporbert told the Herald. He said he plans to ask Council members to waive the fee for a conditional use permit if a house in the newly minted commercial district is destroyed. “I don’t think it was the intention, ever, of the council to deny the ability to rebuild on Pacific .... There wasn’t any ill contempt or conspiracy, here.”

The Swenson house, and about a dozen others on the east side of a half-mile stretch of Pacific Avenue, sits near a used car lot, a bar and a handful of other Thompson businesses. All of those properties are now commercial, per the city zoning map.

But the houses there are clearly residences, so why zone them as commercial properties? Mayor Sporbert said he and City Council members were advised to zone the city for the future.

“There’s commercial interests in there already along with the houses and everything,” he told the Herald. “We zoned it commercial because the natural progression for the city would be to try to get, if something should happen to the houses, try to build it up commercially since it’s the main street.”

Sporbert said the city had no zoning prior to the map, and City Administrator Terri Herbert said it didn’t have an official zoning map.


“We had our maintenance person check to see if they could find anything that was a zoning map for the city,” Sporbert said. “And he couldn’t come up with anything.”

Karyn Hippen, Thompson’s former mayor who resigned in 2017, said zoning rarely came up during her 10-year tenure. The owner of a restaurant wanted to convert it back into a house, and the Council re-zoned the property from commercial back to residential.

Meeting minutes indicate that Council members started to consider creating a zoning map after Northdale Oil asked about setting up shop on the city’s east side in the fall of 2017. Council members agreed to rezone the Northdale location from industrial to commercial on May 7, 2018, about a year before they approved the citywide map.

In the intervening months, they worked with a Grand Forks engineering firm and a city planner to put together the map and turned down the help of a consulting firm.

“We had every intention of ensuring the homeowners were watched out for,” Sporbert said. “We have no intention of not letting them build, rebuild, if something should happen .... We checked with other agencies and everything, and they said it was not uncommon for planning purposes to zone something like that.”

Despite the mayor’s letter, the zoning map has spurred Ryan Cunningham and his family to move out of town, he said.

Cunningham, a local radio personality, said Wednesday that he and his wife, Cassandra, planned to move to nearby Grand Forks eventually, but the new city designation for their house in Thompson was the impetus for them to actually follow through with it.

The Cunninghams’ home is in a neighborhood south of Hwy. 15 that’s bordered on the west by Pacific Avenue. Theirs is the southernmost house that the city zoned commercial. Cunningham’s neighbors in that corner of town are all residentially zoned homes, except for a used car lot that replaced a church immediately north of his property and a largely empty lot immediately west where neighbor Bruce Kulseth has a shed that stores boats, cars, and a motorcycle or two. (The new commercial designation for that property, Kulseth said, “changes nothing.”)


A letter from Thompson City Attorney Zachary Boettner said the house was rezoned “to promote the general welfare of the community through the orderly progression and expansion of the City into the future.”

But Cunningham is skeptical.

“I don’t know how the general welfare of the community is promoted by rezoning one house on a block with 25 houses,” he said.

Cunningham planted a sign in his yard that reads “Commercial Property!! FOR SALE; Call the Thompson City Council.”

The Council’s next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, at the Thompson Community Center.

Ryan Cunningham is a local radio personality who's railed against Thompson's new zoning map since he heard about it in early September. His home is zoned commercial, now, and he said that's spurred his family to follow through on a plan to move to Grand Forks. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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