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Birchmont Drive hearing fills chambers

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Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
(218) 333-9819 customer support
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Surveys will be sent to about 200 property owners along Birchmont Drive who would be affected by assessments for an extension of utilities. The mailings are planned to gauge the interest in moving the project forward.

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The Northern Township Board of Supervisors voted to have property owners fill out and return the survey by March 20. Supervisors will then consider action on the project during their March 24 regular meeting.

If the project is to move forward, the Bemidji City Council must award the bid by April 7.

Northern Township agreed on Monday to poll affected property owners following a public hearing during which Birchmont Drive area residents filled the Council Chambers at Bemidji City Hall to capacity.

Affected property owners would be assessed for sewer and water improvements along Birchmont Drive. Residents connecting to sewer only would be assessed $14,470 and those connecting to sewer and water would be assessed $21,040.

About 20 residents addressed the Northern Township board during the meeting. Several opposed the project due to its costs, while others questioned the process.

The sewer and water extension project was initiated after residents presented a petition to the Bemidji City Council in February 2005. The project later expanded to include Beltrami County and its intention to include the improvement of Birchmont Drive.

Kathy Guess, 4303 Birchmont Drive, asked the Northern Township board to consider polling affected residents as factors and costs have changed since the petition was first circulated.

"I think there have been changes to this proposal that may definitely affect how people really would vote at this time versus what they would've done a couple of years ago," Guess said.

Bemidji City Engineer Craig Gray told attendees that 11 bids were received on the project - "an unbelievable number" - and a few contractors had bid so low on the project that they would make a very little, if any, profit but were simply seeking jobs for their workers.

"We can guarantee you this project will never cost less than what it is going to cost if you do it now," Gray said.

A pair of speakers encouraged the local government unit, whether it would be Northern Township or the city of Bemidji, to locate other funding sources for the project, especially since it will clean up Lake Bemidji.

"This waterway belongs to the public," said Scott Thorson, 4260 Birchmont Drive.

Lloyd Lind, 3402 Birchmont Drive, asked that those with working septic systems be given at least two years to connect to the system.

Gray explained that the Bemidji City Council has adopted a timetable in which those with working septic systems less than three years old have 15 years to connect, those aged four to seven years have 11 years, eight to 11 years have seven years, 12 to 15 years have three years, and those older than 15 years must immediately connect.

The assessments are not deferred, Gray explained, but residents would not have to connect and face monthly user charges during that timeframe.

He also informed residents about the city's newly-approved sewer and water access charges, or SAC/WAC fees.

The City Council adopted SAC/WAC fees as part of the city's new fee schedule for 2008, which includes a $1,830 fee for new sewer customers and an $845 fee for a new water connection.

Gray said the council has given all incoming customers until Jan. 1, 2010, to connect to either system without facing a SAC/WAC fee.

"If you connect prior to 2010, you will not have to pay this fee," Gray said.

Several speakers reacted strongly to the SAC/WAC fees and asked township officials to negotiate with the city to extend the date requiring hook-ups.

David Erickson, 5300 Birchmont Drive, said the implementation of SAC/WAC fees was like blackmailing those who otherwise might defer connecting to sewer and water until their systems are older.

Residents also voiced dissatisfaction with the amount of money being contributed by Beltrami County, which is responsible for the reconstruction of the actual street.

Gray said Beltrami County has capped its contribution at $1.4 million although it will likely cost about $500,000 more than that to complete the roadway work.

However, had the county decided not to reconstruct Birchmont Drive during the utility project, workers still would have needed to put the road back to its original condition which would have cost about the same amount or even more, Gray explained.

Tyler Koos, assistant engineer with Beltrami County, said he believes the perception that the county is not contributing its fair share is not true.

The council originally was going to contribute $200,000 to the road work and increased that to $1.4 million to have the Birchmont Drive improved to meet state-aid standards, Koos said. Also, he noted, the contribution amount is closer to $1.6 million if right-of-way costs are included.

More so, the Beltrami County Board voted to approve the project despite its not being on the five-year plan, which is highly unusual, he said.

"I really do think the county came to bat," he said.

Not all property owners were opposed to the project. Erickson, who questioned the process early in the meeting and spoke against "surprises" such as the SAC/WAC fees, later said he still supported having it done.

"The word inevitable comes to mind," he said.

Rich Siegert, 5930 Birchmont Drive, said the project originally was supposed to be done last year. He told the board that those who have delayed the project already should pay for the increased costs, which will only continue to rise in the future.

The project would cost about $5.5 million, according to Gray. Funding would include $1.4 million from Beltrami County and about $4.1 million in assessments.

If the project is approved, an assessment hearing would be held later this fall, possibly in October, Gray said.

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Bethany Wesley
(218) 333-9200 x337
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