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Bemidji City Council, Northern Township discuss possible annexation

Discussions regarding the extension of water and sewer services further north into Northern Township brought varying opinions at a joint meeting between the township and Bemidji City Council on Tuesday.

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Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews, left, and Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince listen to a concerned citizen speak on issues related to Northern Township during the open comment period of a city council meeting on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, at City Hall. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Discussions regarding the extension of water and sewer services further north into Northern Township brought varying opinions at a joint meeting between the township and Bemidji City Council members on Tuesday.

Over the last year, both government units have been approached by Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, which wants to connect to the water and sewer services provided by the city. Additionally, there has been interest expressed to connect the water services to Lake Bemidji State Park.

"With the township’s large population and tax base, we know there’s going to be a fight by people thinking (Northern Township) doesn’t need the annexation," Northern Township Vice-Chair Jess Frenzel said.

Frenzel questioned if possible annexation will be any easier 20 years from now, after which Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince added that it would “certainly not be cheaper.”

Following a meeting between the city and township in November, estimates were produced for construction costs and related work. If a project were to happen, two lift stations would be needed between the city and the resort, and another two would be required to get to the state park.

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The total estimated cost for extending services to Ruttger's is $4.09 million. That amount includes:

  • $1.26 million for sanitary sewer construction.

  • $500,000 for two lift stations.

  • $625,000 to dewater areas.

With engineering and contingency needs, the total for sewer services comes to $2.98 million.
Then, for water needs, a water main installation would come to $888,300. With contingency and engineering, the total comes to $1.11 million.

A second phase, from the resort to the state park, would have an estimated cost of $4.48 million. The sewer portion of the estimate includes the following:

  • $1.29 million for construction.

  • $500,000 for lift stations.

  • $625,000 for dewatering.

When combining those costs with contingency and engineering needs, the total comes to $3.02 million. For the water main, with construction, engineering and contingency, the amount comes to $1.46 million.

Opposing views

Ward 1 Councilmember Audrey Thayer recognized the expense, but also highlighted a fine balance between the cost and wanting to save the lake.

Along with the construction work itself, the city and township also need to determine how to bring the services north without disturbing other residents. Between the city and resort are several other township properties that could be impacted.

“We naturally have difficulty with change. Personally, I’d like to hear from the 65 households who would be affected by this,” Thayer said. “This isn’t even about Ruttger’s. It’s about the water, our economy, our tourism, everything that’s important to us.”

In past meetings, Northern Township board members have expressed that constituents are not interested in more annexation.

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This sentiment remained the same as township board member Chris Lahn reported on a fairgrounds meet-up where 150 constituents expressed their disdain for possible annexation while only one supported it.

Township board member Curt Blumhagen echoed similar statements after receiving about 10 emails from constituents with, again, one being in favor of annexation. The responses to 1,500 letters sent out also received an overwhelmingly negative view of the project.

Ward 4 Councilmember Emelie Rivera pointed to certain people being unable or afraid to speak out in support of extending services. She noted that only 10% of people invited to the fairgrounds session actually showed up to voice their opinions.

City Manager Nate Mathews emphasized that many other residents may not feel strongly either way until they know how tax rates would be affected.

Frenzel wasn’t strictly against annexation, but continued, “We just finished a 15-year annexation period and thought we were done. There needs to be a point where this will stop someday.”

Over the last decade, sections of Northern Township were annexed into the city as part of a three-phase agreement. The first phase took place in 2010, the second in 2015 and the third in 2020.

The last phase pushed the city's borders north to Lakewood Drive along Lake Bemidji and westward to U.S. Highway 71 and the Bemidji Regional Airport. The three annexations combined brought in roughly 500 residents to the city.

Prince discussed Bemidji’s growth and the circumstances under which annexation occurs.

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“Ten, 20 or even 500 years from now, as the city grows, more annexation will happen,” Prince said. “Either that or you become your own municipality.”

Wanting to poll residents in the Ruttger’s area and collect more information before making any concrete decisions, both government units agreed to another meeting at 5:30 p.m. next Tuesday, Jan. 11, at Northern Town Hall.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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