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Northern Township gives notice to leave Joint Planning Board

In a joint meeting on Monday, Sept. 26, between the Northern Township Board and the Bemidji City Council, Northern Township presented a formal notice to opt out of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

Northern Town Hall
Northern Town Hall is located at 445 Town Hall Rd. NW north of Bemidji.
Daltyn Lofstrom / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Northern Township has given a formal notice outlining its intent to opt out of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, an organization made up of a partnership between Northern Township and the city of Bemidji.

Presented during a joint meeting between the Northern Township Board and the Bemidji City Council on Monday, Sept. 26, the notice is not an immediate exit of the organization, and Northern Township Chairman Jess Frenzel said that they are still open to discussion and cooperation on the partnership’s future.

“We’re not saying we want out right now,” Frenzel explained. “We still want to have discussions.”

The JPB, which is the regulatory body for planning and zoning decisions in Bemidji and Northern Township, was created 15 years ago. Since then, Frenzel said, a lot has changed in the area.

One of the biggest changes has been the fact that the city of Bemidji has annexed a significant portion of Northern in recent years, making the area the JPB serves look much different.

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Jess Frenzel.jpg
Jess Frenzel

“When we started joint planning years and years ago, the township was basically in the city. The city is now out in rural Bemidji,” Frenzel said. “We have lost a lot of property to annexation.”

The Northern Township Board also pointed out other concerns that led to the notice, including the amount of time JPB staff spent in each of the jurisdictions and the unequal representation between the two government bodies on the JPB. Bemidji has three members on the board, compared to Northern Township's two.

“We don’t have equal representation anymore,” said Mike Kelly, a member of the Northern Township Board. “We feel like we’ve lost our ability to communicate inside the JPB … it just isn’t working for us.”

The current notice presented by Northern Township would have the partnership formally dissolved on Dec. 31, 2024, though this could be adjusted depending on the interpretation of the original contract’s exit terms.

If Northern Township does decide to leave the JPB, it would not be the first. Bemidji Township, which was also a founding member of the organization, exited the group in 2017 following settlements related to the annexation of the township by the city.

Frenzel emphasized that he does not want the termination of the partnership between the city and Northern Township, if it does happen, to be on bad terms.

“We want to end on good terms, you’ve been great partners,” Frenzel said. “You’ve got to look at it from the township’s perspective. We’re trying to do the right thing here.”

Northern Township is open to discussions on how the JPB might continue, assuming some adjustments were made to the organization. The notice serves in some respects as an ultimatum for those conversations.

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“We still plan on having discussions with (the city of Bemidji) to see how this could work, but if we can’t figure it out in two and a half years, are we ever going to figure it out?” Frenzel said.

Even if the township does exit the agreement, members of its board stressed they would like to continue a partnership in at least some capacity.

“We still believe that joint planning is important for the area,” Kelly said.

Members of the city council understood Northern Township’s concerns and responded that they would need to have some discussions of their own.

“I have some understanding of why you’ve provided this notice,” said Mayor Jorge Prince. “We’re going to have to take that information and have our own meeting.”

Extending services

The future of the JPB was not the only topic of conversation during the joint meeting between the two government bodies. Another point of discussion was an update on the progress related to a project aiming to extend water and sewer services up to Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji.

Several different options were presented to accomplish this goal last January to both Northern Township and the city of Bemidji. These ranged from the possibility of Bemidji annexing land along the extension route, to Northern Township developing its own water and sewer service system.

After these options were laid out, Northern Township began to pursue the latter option, seeking letters of support from Bemidji and working with state legislators to acquire funding.

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At the meeting on Monday, Frenzel asked about the possibility of creating a memorandum of understanding with Bemidji on the project, since the city would be the township’s partner for it.

“The next step that we would like to propose is talking about what an agreement would look like. I would like to have that discussion,” Frenzel said.

A formal MOU and commitment by the city could help get support from the legislature to include the project in a bonding bill.

“Our (state) partners are asking for that. They want to know for sure that we have a project and a partner,” Kelly said.

The city expressed a need for further information on the project before an MOU could be signed between the two parties.

“We need to have a little bit more information on whether there’s a realistic project here or not,” said City Manager Nate Mathews. “The MOU will be trickier for both of us, you need to know what your costs are.”

A consensus was reached that more details on the project need to be ironed out between the township and the city before an MOU is discussed.

“The devil’s in the details,” Prince said. “What I don’t want to see happen is any additional burden on the city taxpayer or any additional risk.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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