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Birchmont Drive: Judge rules against Northern Township

A judge has issued a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs who appealed their assessments in the Birchmont Drive reconstruction project.

The judgment ruled in favor of the 54 property owners over Northern Township, which imposed the 2008 assessments on the 54 property owners.

Heather Sweetland, assistant chief judge for District 6 in St. Louis County, issued the judgment Sept. 1. The appeal was filed in Beltrami County District Court but Sweetland presided over the matter because one of the plaintiffs is a Beltrami County district judge.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorney Zenas Baer, argued that the properties assessed would not increase 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 township, according to court documents, based its decision regarding the potential benefits on residential use and impact, the benefit derived from having municipal water and sewer over residential services, new roadways and enhanced water quality.

In the ruling, Sweetland agreed that the township's conclusion that the properties would increase in value was "without foundation."

"A lump sum approach based on present use bears little, if any relation to the market value of the improvements," Sweetland wrote in the summary judgment order.

The order dictates that assessments in the case are invalid and that the parcels be reassessed.

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.

"I pleased with it," said Baer, in an interview last week. "I think it was a sound decision."

Baer was planning to hold a conference call with his clients to discuss the ruling.

The township has several choices. It could choose to appeal the order, reassess the properties and/or consider a settlement.

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 of Bloomington, Minn.

Kuboushek said Monday that Northern Township has not decided yet what it will do next.

The Northern Town Board during its regular meeting Monday decided to meet with Kuboushek in a closed session on Sept. 23.

According to a statement read by board Chairman Ronald Grangeness, the ruling determined that the petition for the assessment, the assessment process and the agreements between the city, county and township were legal.

"Judge Sweetland determined there was not enough evidence in the assessment proceedings or the record which showed that each assessed lot increased in value at least the amount of the assessment," the statement read.

"This does not mean ... she determined the benefits do not equal or exceed the assessment amounts," it continued. "Rather, there was just not enough evidence in the record. This problem can be remedied on reassessment through the use of appraisal evidence."

The ruling, according to Baer and the township's statement, will only apply to the plaintiffs. More than 200 parcels were originally affected by the assessments and 54 property owners appealed.

"Property owners who did not join in the appeal are not to be included in the reassessment process," the township statement read. "The reassessment is limited to 54 properties."