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Council weighs in on Gene Dillon plans

BEMIDJI--Bemidji city staff and officials made a pair of decisions Monday that could influence Bemidji Area Schools leaders' plans to build a new elementary school.

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BEMIDJI-Bemidji city staff and officials made a pair of decisions Monday that could influence Bemidji Area Schools leaders' plans to build a new elementary school.

City council members generally agreed that new city water and sewer lines should only extend along Division Street from Bemidji High School to Adams Avenue and not further west toward Becida Road, where school district staff hope to begin building Gene Dillon Elementary School this spring. The council also voted unanimously to draft a "municipal services agreement" between the city and school district-with input from the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board-that would require the school site to be annexed before it is connected to city sewer and water services.

The utilities decision means the school district could end up footing the bill for proprietary sewer and water lines that would run parallel to Division and connect the new school to city utilities at the intersection of Adams and Division. City leaders were reluctant to extend services beyond Adams because it could mean less money for other projects or a utility rate hike.

If enacted, the services agreement means the planning board would get some level of input on the school district's plans. City policy dictates that the Gene Dillon site-which is currently a part of Grant Valley Township-would need to be annexed and become a part of Bemidji proper before it could receive municipal sewer or water service. If and when the site becomes a part of Bemidji, it would fall under the joint planning board's jurisdiction.

School district leaders at the Monday City Council work session stressed that their top priority was to get the school built on time, but were generally reluctant to have the site annexed immediately because they felt it could incur additional fees and city sales taxes during construction.

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City Manager Nate Mathews said he met with Superintendent Jim Hess and Chris Leinen, the school district's director of business services, last week.

"Their opinion is that (Bemidji Area Schools) does not need JPB involvement or City permitting because they have received a Building Permit from the County," Mathews wrote in a memo to the City Council. Beltrami County issued a "conditional use permit" for the Gene Dillon project last fall, part of which stipulates that the new school be connected to municipal sewer and water services.

Mayor Rita Albrecht said she thought the Gene Dillon site was chosen because Grant Valley doesn't have many zoning requirements.

"This is going to be in the city," Council Member Michael Meehlhause said of the planned school. "We don't want to set a precedent of these large projects outside of the city that just do whatever they want and expect to come into the city."

The planned agreement, then, could allow the city to stick to its annexation policy, the planning board to have input, and the school district to decide when it starts the clock on any sales taxes or fees because it can decide when it wants the water hookup and, therefore, when to be a part of the city.

A letter from Casey Mai, the planning board's planning director, to Mathews outlines several required "performance standards" for any development under Joint Planning Board jurisdiction. They include trash enclosures, one tree per 50 "lineal feet of street frontage," a lighting plan and several stipulations for parking lots. Other typical conditions, according to Mai, include landscaping and signage plans.

The planning board could also ask the school district to "ensure that items from the traffic study deemed necessary by the road authority are conditioned to be constructed before occupancy of the school," according to Mai's letter. An earlier plan to build Gene Dillon stalled when planning board, city and school district staff couldn't agree on traffic improvements to Conifer Avenue, where the school district originally planned to build the elementary.

Leinen said Monday that nothing outlined in Mai's letter was insurmountable.

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Bemidji-area voters approved a tax increase in 2014 to build the new elementary school, which school district staff estimate could cost about $31 million dollars in total to construct.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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