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Birchmont property owners file appeal over assessments

The owners of 54 properties who were imposed assessments for last year's Birchmont Drive Northeast improvements have filed an appeal with Beltrami County District Court.

The appeal was filed Dec. 2, revised Dec. 22 and is scheduled for a summary judgment hearing July 24.

The plaintiffs are appealing the 2008 assessments for the project, which included road improvements and the extension of water and sewer services to Birchmont Drive and side streets.

The defendant in the case is Northern Township, which was the municipality that approved the project and assessments.

The assessment to properties that received all three improvements was $20,315, according to court documents filed in the case. Those that received road and sewer improvements were assessed $13,990. Assessments did vary, however, based on the number of vacant lots and other factors.

Zenas Baer, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he was "very confident" in the merits of the plaintiffs' arguments.

"If a city or township wants to assess a property, for instance for $20,000, they have to prove the individual property is increasing in value by that amount," he said. "If there is no evidence showing an increase in value, the city or township cannot assess one penny."

The plaintiffs are arguing, according to court documents, that the properties assessed have not increased in value due to the cost of abandoning their existing sewer and water systems, plumbing costs to connect to the new system, the implementation of sewer and water connection fees and the cost of landscaping needs to return lots to their previous condition.

The Birchmont Drive project was complicated by the relationship between Northern Township and the city of Bemidji.

Because the Birchmont Drive project area is within the ring of properties eligible for annexation in 2010, the city was considered the governmental agency in charge of awarding bids - but Northern Township was responsible for approving the project and assessments.

Representing Northern Township is Jason J. Kuboushek with Iverson Reuvers out of Bloomington, Minn.

"The township feels good," Kuboushek said. "The township worked closely with the city and came up with a method for applying assessments that they felt was fair and reasonable."

The annexation agreement states that those not in the city limits, but within annexation borders, may present a petition to the city.

Jim Humeniuk, 6002 Shady Lane N.E., presented a petition to the Bemidji City Council on Nov. 22, 2005, with 85 signatures in favor of water and sewer improvements. A feasibility study was ordered.

The plaintiffs in the case maintain that they were told the petition was for "informational purposes" only, according to court documents.

One of the plaintiffs' arguments is that the city proposed two separate projects, which both included assessments. The first was for sewer and water improvements; a second was for road improvements.

But the plaintiffs are arguing that the road project never went through the proper procedure because no petition for such improvements was ever presented, according to court documents.

The project was expanded to include Beltrami County for Birchmont Drive road improvements to allow for the work to be done at the same time as sewer and water improvements.

All the plaintiffs comprise the Birchmont Drive Preservation Society, which also is listed as a plaintiff in the case.

The case is being heard in Beltrami County District Court. However, the presiding judge is Heather Sweetland, assistant chief judge for District 6 in St. Louis County. Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter is one of the plaintiffs in the case.