Bemidji City Council continues discussion on Northern Township MOU, annexation
Their discussion continues after nearly two years since Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge approached the city requesting to connect to its water and sewer system back in 2021.
BEMIDJI — Continued discussion of a proposed memorandum of understanding with Northern Township, which would allow the township to connect to the city’s water and sewer infrastructure without annexation, took center stage at Bemidji City Council's work session on Monday.
At the March 6 meeting,
City Attorney Katie Nolting presented the council with five options regarding the MOU and annexation:
- Do nothing, which would leave the problem of water and sewer systems around the lake as is.
- Continue to negotiate the MOU even with engineering and legal concerns raised by staff.
- File for contested annexation. Assuming Northern Township doesn’t agree to annexation the city could take the issue to court.
- Pursue orderly annexation. If Northern Township does agree to annexation a plan could be discussed.
- Merging, which would combine Bemidji and Northern Township into one city, redistricting for equal representation.
These options were born out of legal and engineering concerns following Northern Township’s initial MOU proposal to the city council in a recent meeting. The proposal outlined the project and each party’s involvement.
During discussion, Nolting provided clarification on differences between annexation and merging, which wasn’t under the council’s consideration until Monday's meeting.
“With annexation, you just take parts (of the township) and do it piece by piece,” Nolting explained. “A merger would be literally an agreement where all of Northern Township would merge with the city of Bemidji. That’s the main difference, and there’s a couple different ways you could get there.”
Nolting stated a potential referendum could go out to voters to decide on the issue, or the city and township could come to a mutual agreement on how the merger would work.
Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson stated he wasn’t against merging, but that it doesn’t seem that the township would be interested in that option considering their aversion to annexation.
“This doesn’t seem like something that Northern Township would want, but you never know,” Johnson said. “Merging could be pretty appealing. … It seems it would be a bit harder, but it’s not one that I would take off the table.”
Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson restated his support for the MOU and inquired about adding stipulations within it.
A couple of examples he provided include adding language about Northern Township not being able to incorporate as its own city and entities who were previously annexed not being allowed to retroactively leave the city, given a precedent with Northern being allowed to connect to city services without annexation.
Peterson also raised concerns regarding city ordinances and referenced the most recent annexation from 2020.
“We’ve already seen with the last set of annexation, we already have hunting and farming issues,” Peterson said. “I imagine if a merger was to take place, it would trigger a lot of issues with our current city ordinances.”
Mayor Jorge Prince referred to the night’s discussion as “Groundhog’s Day” considering the nearly two years since Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge approached the city requesting to connect to its system back in 2021, and the series of meetings that have taken place since.
“We’re fundamentally talking about an issue with borders. Usually, that’s reserved for nations, but this time around it’s between our city and the township,” Prince said. “I get the sense that Northern Township wants there to be a definitive end to annexation, however and whatever shape that may take.”
Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton expressed support for merging or orderly annexation, noting problems with extending services without annexation.
“The dead rat on the table is annexation. The policy says ‘no extension of services without annexation,’” Eaton said. “Annexation seems to be unacceptable to Northern Township, so without a resolution on that particular subject, it’s clear that the boundary is drawn and the township has to take their own course of action for water and sewer for their residents.”
Before adjourning, the council discussed the possibility of holding a joint meeting with the township, with Nolting in charge of creating a resolution inviting them to future discussions. This will be presented to the council at its regular meeting on March 20.