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GOVERNMENT: End in sight for annexation litigation

BEMIDJI--Three local government bodies met for a joint public hearing Thursday to move forward and end litigation that's spanned five years. By holding the public hearing, the three government units--the city of Bemidji, Bemidji Township and Nort...

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BEMIDJI-Three local government bodies met for a joint public hearing Thursday to move forward and end litigation that's spanned five years.

By holding the public hearing, the three government units-the city of Bemidji, Bemidji Township and Northern Township-are now able to take action on two resolutions related to annexation and zoning, two matters which were included in a recent settlement agreement.

The actions come after a settlement was reached in a lawsuit brought by Bemidji Township v. Northern Township and the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

"I think everyone was tired of the litigation. So, the attorneys fashioned a settlement agreement that all three parties could agree to," said Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht after Thursday's meeting. "I think it's unfortunate that what we thought was a good experiment ended this way. But sometimes, elected officials change and the focus and purpose change as well, and I think that's maybe what happened in this case."

The settlement allows Bemidji Township to exit both an orderly annexation agreement created in 2004 as well as an agreement related to zoning and planning between the three government bodies.

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The orderly annexation agreement was initially agreed upon by the three entities to allow the city of Bemidji to annex township property in three phases, with land becoming available in 2010, 2015 and 2020.

After the first phase became official in 2012, though, Bemidji Township filed its first lawsuit against the city. In 2013, a mediation settlement agreement was reached by the two, allowing properties annexed from Bemidji Township and not served by the city to exit the city and return to the township, as well as barring the city from initiating annexation of any Bemidji Township property until June 1, 2018.

Litigation issues continued in March 2014, when 9th District Court Judge Paul Benshoof ruled in the city's favor, ordering Bemidji Township's lawsuit to be dismissed with prejudice. Benshoof also concluded that Bemidji Township remain bound by the orderly annexation agreement.

In April 2014, Bemidji Township filed a second lawsuit against the city, as well as Northern Township and the JPB. The claims against the city were dismissed in November 2014, though, by 9th District Judge Jana Austad, who cited the similarity between the second and first lawsuits.

That ruling was later reversed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in May 2015. As a result, the matter continued until April 2016, when a court session regarding those claims took place and Austad took the subject under advisement with 90 days to rule.

In July 2016, Austad ruled to dismiss claims made against the city in the second lawsuit. However, while Bemidji was no longer attached because of Austad's ruling, Northern Township and the JPB were still involved.

The agreement at the center of Thursday's public hearing was to resolve the second lawsuit. Included in the settlement is language to release Bemidji Township from the orderly annexation agreement as well as the revised Joint Powers Agreement for planning and zoning services. As a result, Bemidji Township will no longer be part of the annexation agreement, nor will it be under the jurisdiction of the JPB.

Bemidji and Northern Township, meanwhile, will continue to be in the orderly annexation agreement as well as fall under the jurisdiction of the JPB.

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A day in advance of the joint public hearing, the JPB met to take its own action on the settlement. At its Wednesday meeting, the board approved both the settlement agreement as well as authorized staff to remove Bemidji Township from its map of jurisdiction.

With the public hearing portion of the process now over, the next step for the three governing bodies is to adopt two resolutions, one relating to the annexation and the other to planning. The resolutions will make the revisions to the documents to remove Bemidji Township as is required by the settlement agreement.

Once the terms of the settlement agreement are fully complied with, legal counsel for each party in the second lawsuit will file a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice, according to documents.

Related Topics: BEMIDJI CITY COUNCIL
Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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