City, Northern Township to explore water and sewer district to protect Lake Bemidji
Both the city of Bemidji and Northern Township have agreed to look into a potential water and sewer district in the most recent update to their efforts to protect Lake Bemidji.
BEMIDJI — Having reached several impasses in the discussion of extending city water and sewer services to Northern Township, the Bemidji City Council and the township board have now agreed to look into the possibility of creating a water and sewer district.
First raised in relation to Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge, which requested to connect to Bemidji’s system back in 2021, the discussion on a potential extension of city infrastructure has been caught in frequent delays over the past two years.
Now, during a joint meeting Wednesday night between the city council and Northern Township’s board, another solution has been raised that could prove agreeable to both governments.
The initial proposal to extend services to Ruttger’s received pushback from Northern Township, since the city informed the parties involved that it would require annexation. Instead, six options were drafted to present to the township in January 2022.
One of these options was that Northern Township could develop its own water and sewer infrastructure and connect it to Bemidji’s system for an established fee, which Northern Township began to pursue.
However, after Northern Township presented a memorandum of understanding to the council to confirm their support of the project, the council was informed by city staff of several legal and engineering concerns with the proposal.
At Wednesday’s meeting, several members of Northern Township’s board expressed frustration with the city’s reluctance to sign the MOU.
“This was (the city’s) proposal, this wasn’t our proposal. We’ve followed through at every part along the way,” said Northern Township Supervisor Chris Lahn. “Instead we just keep going around in circles. We’re just asking you guys to follow through on an offer you made to us.”
In response to these frustrations, some members of the council reiterated their reasons for caution, including the legal precedents that allowing non-annexed users to hook up to city infrastructure could set and concerns over fees, liability and maintenance.
A different solution
Having reached an impasse with Northern Township’s resistance to annexation and the city’s resistance to extending services to non-annexed properties, a different type of solution was raised.
“The city and Northern Township could form a water and sewer district,” said Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton.
A water and sewer district would create an independent body, separate from both the city and the township, which would manage water and sewer systems around Lake Bemidji. It would also require the cooperation of Beltrami County and need approval by the state legislature.
The idea of a district was met favorably by Northern Township, with several members stating that they were just looking for a way forward.
“We are looking to come together and protect Lake Bemidji, that’s where we’re coming from,” said Northern Township Supervisor Mike Kelly. “(A district) just makes sense, the shared resources of it make sense.”
However, it was agreed that the idea would need further exploration, both by legal professionals and engineers. Because of the scale of the project, if it were to be undertaken, concerns with timing were also raised.
Ruttger’s, it was noted, is looking for a decision within the next two months. If no solution is chosen by that time, it may proceed with an independent project to bring its systems back up to code.
In the meantime, it was agreed that the council would look to acquire legal counsel on the topic, and engineering would begin initial research on what a district would entail.
“What we need is the willingness to cooperate,” Eaton said. “The elephant in the room is the quality of Lake Bemidji. We can’t lose that.”