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City, townships look to future

Mel Milender, left, the outgoing planning administrator for the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, accepts a gift from city and township officials Wednesday night at a joint meeting of the Bemidji City Council and Bemidji and Northern town boards at Bemidji City Hall. Pictured at right is Greg Negard, the chairman of the JPB. Milender, who has served as the JPB planning administrator since 2007, will retire this spring. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

This year will mark a turning point for the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

Not only will the top administrator be retiring, but the three local governmental units that comprise the JPB also are considering expanding its responsibilities.

The Bemidji City Council and Bemidji and Northern town boards, as well as staff, met in a twice-a-year joint meeting Wednesday to discuss the operation of the JPB.

The JPB, which began meeting in 2004, adopted the greater Bemidji area zoning and subdivision regulations in 2007 and began overseeing land use and zoning for the three LGUs that year.

New administrator

Perhaps the biggest change coming is the impending retirement of Mel Milender, who has led the JPB as planning administrator since 2007.

He will retire next month, once his replacement is hired and training when that new hire has occurred.

The JPB received 22 applications for the job.

Nine were from out-of-state (including two from out-of-country) and the rest were from Minnesota, reported Clark Chambers, who serves on both the JPB and the five-person committee that reviewed the applications.

Six people were selected for interviews, Chambers said. Two are from northern Minnesota, two are from southern Minnesota and two are from out-of-state.

Three of the interviews have taken place and three more are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Chambers said the committee will report to the full JPB following interviews. The JPB must authorize any offer of employment.

"There is a culture that we enjoy here in northern Minnesota, and I think it's very important that Mel's successor understands the northern Minnesota culture and how we embrace where we live," said Jan Heuer, a member of the Bemidji Town Board. "That's important to us."

Heuer, who is not on the committee reviewing applicants, said she wanted those involved in the interview process to keep that culture in mind.

Rental regulations

Milender put to the LGUs the question of whether the JPB should take a role in rental control.

"Rentals are an issue in all three LGUs," he said.

The city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township both have a rental ordinance, but they are not identical. Northern Township does not have a rental ordinance but instead relies on Beltrami County rules for public health.

Milender asked officials if they wanted to begin getting into rental control and rental inspection.

He noted several recurrent problems in the JPB's coverage area with rentals. Further, some of the rental properties are located in areas that will be annexed into the city limits in coming years. He wondered, should the JPB begin looking at those rentals now or let the city handle it when they do come into city limits.

"I, personally, think we need a rental ordinance," Milender said.

He said he believes enforcement of any rental ordinance would pay for itself through fees.

John Chattin, Bemidji city manager, said that is the case for the city, which makes money on its rental inspections. He suggested that deciding whether to pursue rental enforcement should not be based on fiscal concerns.

"It's really an issue of do you believe you should have rental inspections in the joint planning area," he said.

Becky Livermore said it is clear in the eight years during which Bemidji Township has had its rental ordinance that it is not perfect, but officials like having one from a health and public safety standpoint.

The LGUs agreed to each select one representative who would all come together to look into the issue on an exploratory committee.

Animal control

Similarly, the LGUs agreed to appoint representatives to look into whether the JPB should address animal control issues.

The city now addresses animal control issues through the community service officer with the Bemidji Police Department. Bemidji and Northern townships both are members of the Bemidji Rural Animal Control Organization.

Livermore raised the topic to inquire as to whether there would be a better way to address animal control issues throughout the JPB's coverage area.

Again, the LGUs agreed to each select one representative who would all serve on an exploratory committee.

JPC size

The size of the Joint Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the JPB, has been a topic of discussion for at least two years.

Currently, the JPC is a 12-member board with six representatives from the city and three from each township.

The size of the JPC is set by the Joint Powers Agreement. If the JPC were to shrink in size to eight members, that decision would need to be made by all three LGUs.

Because the issue keeps arising, Milender asked the LGUs to take a position on the matter.

"I believe it's in the best interest of the JPC, of the new administrator and the staff, that we put this (issue) to bed for the next three to five years," he said.

Chambers, a former member of the JPC, said he supports a smaller commission because, among other reasons, the larger membership requires more attendees to meet quorum requirements.

Livermore, a member of the JPB, disagreed.

"I think the role of the commission is different than the role of the (JPB)," she said. "The commission's job is to shift through as many points of view, as many possibilities. When you have more people together, you are able to get more points of view and you are able to get more of this information brought together, shifted through and then funneled to the Joint Planning Board."

A show of hands indicated a much-stronger preference for keeping the commission at 12 members.


Lewis Crenshaw, a member of the JPC, raised the issue of parks and how parkland administration should occur in the future.

He noted that the 72-square-mile JPB coverage area has more than 8,100 acres of state parks, county parks, township parks, city parks, conservation land and other recreational areas.

"We have a tremendous wealth of potential parks, parkland and recreation areas that would be the envy of just about any other place in the world," he said.

Crenshaw then asked, rhetorically, if the JPB should perhaps consider an alternative way of overseeing such parkland.

No action was taken.

Birchmont Drive

The ongoing process for reassessing the properties impacted by the Birchmont Drive road project is still happening.

The Birchmont Drive project was completed in 2009 and assessments were applied to more than 200 parcels of property. Because of impending annexation, the city of Bemidji was the governmental agency in charge of awarding bids, but was not able to assess property owners, so Northern Township was in charge of approving the project and ordering the assessments.

Owners of 54 properties appealed the assessment and won.

Northern Township is in the process of reassessing the properties of 54 property owners who had been imposed assessments in 2008 for the Birchmont Drive reconstruction project. Those property owners eventually prevailed in court and Northern Township is now working to reassess those property owners.

Northern Township officials reported that the process is still moving forward but nothing yet has been released to the public.