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Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board: City, townships review joint planning effort

About 30 officials and staff gathered Tuesday evening at Bemidji Town Hall to discuss the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and its future. The JPB, about to enter its fourth year of operation, is on the verge of a new era. Current Planni...

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Attendees to the joint meeting between the Bemidji City Council, Bemidji Town Board and Northern Town Board broke into small groups to discuss the status of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. Clockwise from bottom left are Barb Meuers, a Bemidji city councilor; Becky Livermore, Bemidji Town Board member and member of the JPB; Jerry Downs, Bemidji city councilor; and Clark Chambers, Northern Town Board member and member of the JPB. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

About 30 officials and staff gathered Tuesday evening at Bemidji Town Hall to discuss the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and its future.

The JPB, about to enter its fourth year of operation, is on the verge of a new era. Current Planning Administrator Mel Milender, the former zoning administrator for Bemidji and Northern townships, will retire at the end of March.

"I assure you you will get 100 percent from me until March 31," Milender said. "Thank you so much for your support."

At the closing of the meeting, those in attendance applauded Milender and his work, telling him that they appreciate the time he has spent with the JPB.

The meeting featured current and incoming members of the Bemidji City Council, Bemidji Township and Northern Township - the three local government units that compose the JPB.

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Such joint meetings of all LGUs are typically held twice a year. The last one was held in April.

Since the joint meeting in May 2009, the JPB - which handles zoning and land use regulations - also was charged with expanding its planning role.

Milender noted several projects undertaken by the JPB that examine planning issues, including that the entire area now is eligible for participation in the National Flood Insurance Program, tree preservation and storm water requirements, airport zoning and participation in the Active Living initiatives.

But the focus of the meeting was on the future.

"In order to go forward, we have to answer some questions, and we need to talk about where you want to go," Milender said.

Participants broke into small groups and worked on developing responses to four questions:

- What are the forces that act as a catalyst to encourage us to act as one community?

- What are the forces that keep us from acting as one community?

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- What changes do we need to make to act as one community?

- What are we going to see when we all act as one community?

Groups had about roughly 15 minutes to answer the questions and the answers were read aloud with the group.

For the first question, most groups agreed that the JPB effort has been cooperative, focusing on the need that the greater Bemidji area needs to collaborate.

"We're figured out a way to work together," Milender said.

For the second question, answers ranged from the JPB not being business-friendly enough and having too many rules to different LGUs protecting their "turf" and not having enough trust in one another.

Milender noted that some of the responses were the same as those from five years ago, when the JPB was still being formed.

Recognizing that hurt feelings exist will help address them, he said.

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"We all have to work together to get rid of that," he said. "Remember your members of the JPB are your policy-making bodies for your LGU."

Further, he said, the JPB and LGUs need to always work to improve communication.

He noted that when no complaints are being received, it is too easy to just assume the JPB is doing a good job.

"Apathy is probably the biggest danger we've got," Milender said.

For the third question, people agreed that all LGUs must look at what is good for the others and what is good for the greater Bemidji area. Other ideas suggested ordinance revisions and having more business involvement in the JPB.

"All those things have been said before," Milender said. "Every one of them."

On the fourth question, answers ranged from having equal taxation to having one rental ordinance for the whole JPB area. Other ideas were having a greater number of townships included in the JPB process and having more township residents serving on city committees and vice versa.

"You're not saying anything different than you were five years ago. You're not saying anything different than you were six months ago," Milender said. "And I still think all of you have the same goal in mind that you will, some day, look like one community."

Milender promised to take all of the responses, format them and send them to the LGUs for discussion.

"We have the potential to be a great community," he said. "Let's keep working at it."

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