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Bemidji Township to leave orderly annexation, joint power agreements

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BEMIDJI — Bemidji Township won’t be annexed into the city after all.

After a marathon mediation session between the city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township that lasted until early Friday, an agreement was reached that allows the township to exit the orderly annexation and joint powers agreements.

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“I would say this is bittersweet,” Mayor Rita Albrecht said of the result of the nearly 10-hour session. “Because we thought we had something very unique and special with these three (local government units) coming together to have this orderly annexation agreement.”

Bemidji Township sued the city in August, claiming it had violated the annexation agreement adopted by the city of Bemidji as well as Northern and Bemidji townships in 2004 by not providing city services such as sewer and water immediately upon annexation, among other claims.

The city and township had met in several mediation sessions the past few weeks.  

“It’s like the old adage says, the best settlements are the ones that don’t make either side entirely happy and lets both sides move on productively” said John Steffenhagen, Bemidji Township’s attorney in the matter. “And I think this settlement fits the bill.”

The first phase of annexation was initiated in April 2012, and ultimately approved by an administrative judge in May of last year. That brought parts of Northern and Bemidji townships into the city.

According to the mediation settlement agreement reached Friday, provided to The Bemidji Pioneer by city manager John Chattin, properties that were annexed from Bemidji Township that aren’t being served by city and sewer and water services can exit the city and return to the township with property owner consent. The city and the township must agree the petitioned property should be detached.

The mediation agreement will go before the Bemidji City Council on Monday for a vote, Chattin said. Steffenhagen said he believes the township board will approve the agreement unanimously.

All three governments, including Northern Township, will have to agree to any amendments to the orderly annexation agreement and the joint powers agreement. Chattin said because of the number of issues involved, including the makeup of the representation on the joint planning board and commission, the process could take some time.

“There’s just a whole host of things that will have to be worked out,” Chattin said.

 “The City Council still believes the joint powers board was the best way to do planning and zoning for our community,” Chattin said. “And if we’re left with just the city of Bemidji and Northern Township, we just hope that joint powers board continues to be an effective planning and zoning entity for us.”

The mediation agreement requires any property taxes paid by annexed properties in 2013 to be paid to Bemidji Township. City finance director Ron Eischens wrote in an email that the city won’t receive property taxes from the township until the end of June, but he estimated that amount to be about $20,000.

The agreement also states that the city cannot initiate any annexation of Bemidji Township property until 2018, unless it’s initiated by a property owner petition. That property must share a border with the city at the time of the petition, however.

Ward 5 city councilor Nancy Erickson said she didn’t support the agreement.  

 “If Bemidji Township wants to leave this agreement, I’m not in favor of keeping an unwilling partner,” Erickson said. “But (I also) do not support them going out the door with a suitcase full of stuff. And we gave too much.”

Ward 2 Councilor Roger Hellquist wasn’t able to attend the mediation session Thursday due to a scheduling conflict, and Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson had to leave before the agreement was signed because of work. Johnson questioned why another date wasn’t picked so the full council, including two of the most senior councilors, could discuss the issue. 

Albrecht said settling the issue through mediation between elected officials was a better method than going to court and having the community’s future in the hands of a district court judge.

Pending approval of the mediation agreement, the case will be dismissed in court, said Jim Thomson, the city’s attorney in the matter. The agreement also states that neither party is admitting liability.

Albrecht said it was “disappointing” that Bemidji Township no longer wanted to be part of the agreement.

“Yet, for the city I think it’s a positive outcome because whenever you have litigation, you don’t really want to go into the courtroom,” she said. “And that’s what we were trying to avoid.”

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John Hageman
John Hageman covers local business and Grand Forks' legislative delegation. Get more business news at aroundtown.areavoices.com. 
(701) 780-1244
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