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Bemidji Township not participating on joint planning board; Meeting between three governments in the works

BEMIDJI — The long-term effects of the settlement between the city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township have yet to be seen.

But it’s already having an impact on the governing body that makes planning and zoning decisions for three local governments.

John Steffenhagen, the Edina-based attorney for Bemidji Township, said township board members aren’t participating on the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, where they have two seats. The city of Bemidji has four councilors assigned to that board, and Northern Township has two board supervisors.

Bemidji Township’s two board representatives, Brian Merschman and Pete Fredrickson, the JPB’s chairman this year, were not at the most recent meeting June 12. Bemidji City Councilor Nancy Erickson, the board’s vice chairwoman, chaired that meeting, the first since the mediated settlement agreement was signed May 31.

Erickson said she anticipates holding that chair until, or if, Fredrickson returns to the board. Fredrickson deferred comment to Steffenhagen last week.

"The township thought it was in everybody’s best interest, until that (mediation) agreement was fully implemented, that they stay away from the board," Steffenhagen said. "They thought that that was frankly best for all concerned."

He said he believed the same would be the case for the joint planning commission.

Bemidji Township contributed about $34,000 to the JPB in 2012, compared to $84,000 from the city and $51,000 from Northern Township.

The JPB’s planning administrator Mayana Rice said from a staff perspective, nothing has changed.

"There’s nothing really affecting how the office is running," Rice said. "We’re still providing services to all three (governments), we’re still hearing planning cases, etc." She added, however, that their comprehensive planning process is on hold until the future becomes a bit clearer.

The settlement

The settlement between Bemidji Township and the city of Bemidji allows the township to be released as a party to the annexation and joint powers agreements, which both townships and the city adopted in 2004. The settlement also stipulates that the city cannot initiate annexation of any Bemidji Township property until June 2018.

The City Council and the Bemidji Township board of supervisors voted to approve the terms of the settlement agreement in separate meetings last week.

For the settlement agreement to be fully implemented however, all three governments, including Northern Township, would have to agree to amend the annexation and joint powers agreements. Northern Township board supervisors didn’t make a firm decision in that regard during a Monday work session.

But they did express interest in sitting down with their joint planning partners. Northern Township board supervisor Clark Chambers said that meeting could be a chance for them to understand why Bemidji Township wants to leave the agreements, and to potentially act as a "peacekeeper" between them and the city.

Steffenhagen said Wednesday that they are in the process of setting up a meeting between the three governments. But he said there is no set agenda for what could be discussed and what the result may be.

"We’re going to show and participate in good faith, and that’s what everyone’s going to do I’m sure," he said. "We’re going just as much to listen as to talk."

A scheduling conference between the city of Bemidji’s and Bemidji Township’s legal representatives is scheduled for July 15 in Beltrami County District Court Judge John Melbye’s chambers.

Birchmont Drive

The attorney for Northern Township said this week it’s unclear how the settlement between the city and Bemidji Township will affect the pending utility assessment appeals on Birchmont Drive.

Dozens of property owners filed those assessment appeals in Beltrami County District Court last year against Northern Township and the city. They are contesting the amount they were charged for a water and sewer utility extension project that was completed in 2008.

That case, which has since been assigned to a Clay County District Court Judge, is currently in the discovery phase, said Northern Township’s attorney Jason Kuboushek.

"With regards to Birchmont Drive, it is hard to say at this point how the settlement will affect the Re-Assessment appeal until we find out how (or if) the Orderly Annexation agreement will be amended," Kuboushek wrote in an email.

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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