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Birchmont utility project moving forward

A utilities extension project in the Birchmont Drive Northeast area is moving forward.

The Northern Township Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Monday night to proceed with a project extending city of Bemidji sewer and water to properties along Birchmont Drive and connecting streets.

Voting in favor of the project were supervisors Ronald Gangeness, Mike Kelly, Jim Humeniuk and Jim Thompson. Voting in opposition was Chairman Tim Mountain.

Affected property owners will be assessed for the improvements. Those connecting to sewer only will be assessed $14,470 and those connecting to sewer and water will be assessed $21,040.

The utilities extension project, which is scheduled for this year, was initiated after property owners presented a petition to the Bemidji City Council in February 2005. The project later expanded to include Beltrami County, which will reconstruct the roadway as part of the project.

At Monday night's meeting, the board shared the results of a township survey sent to the 216 property owners who will be affected by assessments for the extension of the utilities.

The results showed that 78 property owners (36 percent) were in favor of moving the project forward and 86 property owners (40 percent) were opposed. The 52 remaining property owners (24 percent) did not return the survey.

Mountain said the surveys that were not returned are considered a vote in favor of the project. He added that the survey was meant to advise the board and is nonbinding to the board's decision on the project.

Shady Lane property owner Doug Lewandowski voiced support for the project at the meeting, noting that more than $300,000 has already been invested in preparing for the project. He also said delaying the project could mean increased costs in the future.

Additionally, he said the project would eliminate some of his costs for replacing a septic system that is out of compliance, benefit Lake Bemidji by processing the effluent in a more functional way and improve the aesthetics and safety of Birchmont Drive.

Birchmont Drive property owner Dr. Carl Seemann said the project is good, but a small number of property owners should not be unequally burdened with the cost of improving Lake Bemidji.

"We need to stand up and say this is not fair," he said.

Seeman noted that he will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Hilltop Animal Hospital to consider a class action to stop the utilities extension project.

Birchmont Drive property owner Rod Pickett agreed that the cost of a cleaner Lake Bemidji should not fall on a few property owners.

"I'm for a better Lake Bemidji, but I don't think this is the answer," he said.

Kelly said the project is not designed to be the whole solution to lake contamination, but could be a first step.

Ross Peterson, who owns three properties on Birchmont Drive, said the project looked good when he first heard about it a year and a half ago.

"But the costs just kept going up and up and up," he said. "I mean, we're talking some serious money."

Another property owner expressed concern about how the project would limit access to the Birchmont Drive area when the project is under way.

Mountain responded by saying he anticipates inconvenience with the project.

"We're talking about a very major project," he said. "If this project goes (on), it's going to be a difficult summer to live on Birchmont."

Bemidji City Engineer Craig Gray said there will be inconveniences, but the project will be done in phases, minimizing these inconveniences.

The project will now go before the City Council, which must award a bid by April 7. The city has received 11 bids.