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Northern Township: Birchmont hearing to continue

NORTHERN TOWNSHIP – Frustrated property owners filled the Northern Town Hall Tuesday night to voice their objections to reassessments for a utility expansion project near their homes.

The joint meeting between the township and the city of Bemidji ended with no formal decision on the $1.4 million assessment roll for sewer and water improvements on Birchmont Drive, however, as the township and city voted to continue the meeting at a later date. The township will address the issue again at a Sept. 24 meeting, and the city will do the same on Oct. 15.

Northern Township board member Clark Chambers said it will give officials time to consider the issues and concerns raised during the meeting.

That decision was at least somewhat encouraging to Zenas Baer, a Hawley, Minn.-based lawyer who has represented the property owners in previous legal proceedings over the assessments.

“I had some optimism on behalf of the members of the city council and one or more of the members of the township that they understand that these are significant issues,” he said after the nearly two-hour meeting. Baer added there is nothing from a legal standpoint in the works before the next hearings.

Dozens of property owners Tuesday filed formal objects to the reassessments that were mailed out in mid-August.

The meeting comes after two court battles in the past four years over assessments for a utility expansion project on Birchmont Drive that was completed in 2008.

Among Baer’s arguments Tuesday was that assessments exceed whatever special benefits the homes received from the project and that the model used to determine how much the properties had increased in value has previously been rejected in court.

The township used calculations from a Duluth-based firm, Ramsland and Vigen Inc., to determine how much properties had increased in value due to the water and sewer improvements. John Vigen, who helped work on those calculations, was at the meeting Tuesday and explained the econometric model that they used.

Baer pointed out that one property, according to the calculations, had increased in value by $50,000 and another by $4,000.

“That disparity has not been explained,” he said. “And I don’t know that Mr. Vigen made any headway tonight in explaining why there is that variation.”

Several residents agreed, and asked city and township officials to consider whether they fully understand the calculations before voting to approve the assessments they were based on.

Others also spoke about how the assessments would affect them personally. Cassandra Robinson told the joint committee that the nearly $34,000 that was assessed to her home would put it under water.

“This is very personal,” she said. “It means I can’t retire.”

Terry Duy said after the meeting that property owners aren’t against paying for the project, but the cost that many of them would have to bear is too much.

“We’re all willing to pay something reasonable,” he said.

The full Bemidji City Council, along with several city staff members, was in attendance Tuesday, as seven reassessed properties were recently annexed into Bemidji. Most of those property owners also formally objected to the assessment.

The meeting Tuesday adds another chapter in a years-long saga. A judge ordered the township to reassess the properties in 2009, stating that the claim that they increased in value by at least as much as the amount of the assessment was “without foundation.”

The issue again went to court in 2011 after the township reassessed the properties using calculations from Ramsland and Vigen Inc. The case was dismissed in May after the township vacated its reassessments.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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