NU City Planner Knisley balances work, farm, business

City Planner John Knisley pores through information on a proposed ordinance change for City Council. Knisley helps to create and present ordinance changes and variances for City Council consideration and approval.

NEW ULM — After growing up in New Ulm, City Planner John Knisley left the city to pursue a career in environmental policy and planning at the federal level.

After finding out his impact on local communities was minimal, Knisley made his way back home.

“The actual amount of impact you can have locally is much more pronounced when you’re working for the local government,” he said. “With an environmental background, I started as the feedlot officer and the solid waste and recycling person for Brown County. I was the assistant zoning administrator there and that morphed into where I came to today.”

Knisley moved back to New Ulm in 2006. He said he chose New Ulm as the place to make an impact because the town and its people feel like a cohesive community.

“I never get the feeling when I’m walking around or talking to people that a group of individuals all happen to live in the same area,” Knisley said. “I feel like everybody has a similar viewpoint on the city. One of the easiest ways to see that is when you drive or walk around. Everybody keeps their yards clean. It’s a pretty clean community.”

Knisley stands with a map of New Ulm, color coded to show different zones designating what can be built there. He said the zone locations have not changed much since the town was originally incorporated, meaning commercial and industrial sectors have stayed and evolved where they were originally built on.

Knisley started his role as a city planner in 2018. He said he had gained plenty of planning experience in prior roles within Brown County. This would come in handy, as the city was undergoing a massive task at the time.

“One of our biggest things we needed to start on right away was working on updating the city’s zoning ordinance,” Knisley said. “That ordinance hadn’t been updated majorly since 1968, so it was a huge task. We started working on that almost immediately.”

In the five-plus years Knisley has been the city planner, he said he and his co-workers have come together as a fully fleshed-out team. Even so, Knisley acknowledges there are always ways to improve. He said communication with the people of New Ulm is an area he would like to work on.

“One thing I want whoever’s reading this article to contact me about is what is our best way of interacting with them?” Knisley said. “Whenever we come up with new policies or regulations, what’s our best way to interact with them? I think that can bring a lot of different perspectives to the work we’re doing here. They are important perspectives.”

Knisley said the city planning department has several plans in the works. In the next six months, he identified finding grant funding to restore the Hermann Monument as a priority task he wants to accomplish. He said they’re also looking at downtown parking and any adjustments that can be made to better the downtown area.

Photo by John Knisley: Knisley runs his own farm and business, selling fruits, veggies, and hard cider among other items. Here, he hauls several bushels of apples with his son Leo and dog Odin.

In addition to his work with city planning, Knisley also operates Alternative Roots Farm and runs Tallgrass Cider. The farm and business came as he and his future wife Brooke were working desk jobs and looking for a change.

“We were both sitting at a desk for 40 hours a week,” Knisley said. “That wasn’t the way we feel like we were gonna have an impact. We decided that if we’re going to have an impact, we got to start getting our hands dirty.”

An initial 10-year plan to find a farm and build a business turned into 10 months, as an offer to be the assistant zoning manager for Brown County allowed them to start the farm in 2011.

Knisley said he has learned plenty from business/farming that has translated to planning and vice versa. He said his experience as a businessman has helped him better understand entrepreneurs when they request variances and changes to city code or have ideas they wish to act on.

As a planner, Knisley said he has learned how to focus his energy when working on the business.

“It helps you look long-term,” he said. “You lay out your goals and address them in a meaningful manner rather than trying to make it all happen at once. Gives you some direction and process to follow.”

As the future gets brighter and brighter for New Ulm, Knisley said he is excited to be part of the growth and change anticipated in the near and further future.

“I think we could see some things here in the city make it more vibrant than it already is,” he said. “Make it feel more like a community than it already does. In that alone we’re going to see some big changes in town and that could be more people and families moving here.”

To contact John Knisley for city planning information, call 507-233-2121, email johnk@newulmmn.gov, or visit the engineering and inspections department on the second floor on city hall.

For business information, visit https://alternativerootsfarm.blogspot.com/ and https://www.tallgrasscider.com/


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