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Joint planning effort hailed as a success

"Are you a community or aren't you?"

This question alone shaped the future for the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships.

Decades of escalating squabbles, bickering and fighting between the local governments came to a head in the early 2000s following a set of particularly contentious annexation processes.

Laws back then favored cities for annexation: If a township's resident wanted city services, he or she could be annexed into city limits. The process resulted in a patchwork of city properties - and hurt feelings on township boards.

"It didn't build relationships. It didn't build bridges; it knocked bridges down," recalled now-Mayor Richard Lehmann.

While running for mayor in 2000, Lehmann began having conversations with township officials, thinking that there had to a better way of doing business.

Once elected and seated in January 2001, Lehmann and a group of city and township officials began meeting to discuss their differences.

City representatives and officials from Bemidji, Eckles, Frohn, Grant, Northern and Turtle River townships all initially took part in the conversations, but eventually other townships faded away from discussions.

Once committed, the city and Bemidji and Northern townships hired Cliff Tweedale, the executive director of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, to facilitate the meetings.

Representatives from Alexandria and Alexandria Township and Pequot Lakes and Sibley Township came to Bemidji to discuss their successful partnerships and eventual agreements.

One of the visitors looked at the Bemidji contingent and asked: Are you a community or aren't you?

"That was the verbal kick-in-the-pants we needed," Lehmann recalled.

It stopped being about the city or about the townships.

Instead, everyone began looking at the issues and considering what was best for the future of the Bemidji community.

"We asked people to challenge themselves to be community stewards," Tweedale said. "That really helped in this process."

During a discussion on the goals of the governmental units, the city was surprised to learn that the townships felt most concerned about Bemidji's downtown.

That led the group to consider its goals beyond an orderly annexation agreement.

"The solution became clear," Tweedale recalled. "We quit talking about annexation and began talking about growth-management issues."

The success of the partnership, according to Tweedale was due to three keys.

First, guidelines were set from the beginning: be tough on the issue, soft on the person. Be respectful.

Second, the process was intentionally slowed down.

"I felt we needed to take the time ... and the build the relationships," Tweedale said.

Last, officials were encouraged to look at the interests of both groups and give up their win-or-lose positions.

It was not about making sure the townships got what they wanted or the city representatives got what they wanted.

It was about planning for the best scenario for all of the greater Bemidji community, Tweedale explained.

Following 18 months of meetings and negotiations, a map was placed before the group. Officials were asked to pinpoint, ideally, where the city's and townships' boundaries would be in five, 10 and 15 years.

Ideas were suggested; lines were drawn.

"And all of a sudden, it just gelled for us," Lehmann said. "We leap-frogged into the 21st century."

The result was the creation of a joint planning initiative in which the city and two townships would consider and act on all land-use requests and planning proposals for the Bemidji area.

The Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board, or JPB as it is affectionately called, is separate from the Bemidji City Council and township boards and now has authority over zoning and planning for the area.

The Joint Planning Commission meets prior to JPB meetings to hold the required public hearings and make recommendations to the JPB.

There also is a joint planning office, which employs Planning Administrator Mel Milender, Assistant Planner Andrew Mack and Administrative Assistant Ginger Pulkrabek.

While orderly annexations are becoming more uncommon, the successful partnerships between a city and townships for zoning and planning is ground-breaking.

Now in its second year of operation, the joint planning initiative has been hailed statewide as a success.

The city of Bemidji was honored in June 2007 as it was named a "City of Excellence" by the League of Minnesota Cities for the joint planning effort. The initiative also has garnered several invitations to speak at planning events throughout the state.

But more than anything else, Lehmann said, the effort cultivated stronger relationships - and even friendships - between city and township officials.

"I believe the process at the beginning was more important than the product because we needed to build that team," he said.

And while the group could easily be content to sit back and congratulate one another for what they have accomplished, it instead was challenged in May to think even bigger.

Tweedale, back again to facilitate a retreat for joint planners, encouraged the JPB, JPC and planning staff to consider taking their efforts to the next level.

He suggested the possibility of actually planning for the future, while still utilizing the resources of in the city and townships, and going beyond the zoning and "reactive" role to instead consider planning needs and being "proactive."

"You ought to feel great about what you've done, but it would be a crime to just cruise," Tweedale said.

Participants were asked to vote anonymously on whether they wished to maintain the status quo or take the joint planning effort to the next level.

The vote was 18-1 in favor of moving it up a notch.

"They were excited about getting to the next level," Tweedale said in an interview Friday. "They're really excited to be a proactive planning, problem-solving force."

The next step, Tweedale said, will be a joint meeting between himself, Milender and Rita Albrecht, the city's community development director.