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Green Acres improvement project draws opposition

Discovery Circle residents questioned a proposed utility improvement project at a public hearing Tuesday night. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

Emotions ran high Tuesday night as some property owners voiced opposition to a proposed utility improvement project for the Green Acres development in Park Rapids.

Close to 50 people attended Tuesday's public hearing to hear information about proposed Green Acres watermain and sanitary sewer improvements. This area includes about 40 homes on Discovery Circle.

The area is being annexed into the city this year as part of an orderly annexation agreement between Henrietta Township and Park Rapids. Properties in this area currently have septic systems and underground water wells.

"This project has been reviewed and discussed since the 1970s," said city engineer Jon Olson during a presentation. The most recent review was in 2000.

Water quality has been a concern. Several of the existing septic systems in the area are no longer compliant, Olson said. According to Enterprise archives, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency investigated petroleum groundwater contamination in the Green Acres area in the 1990s.

"We're doing this project for the safety and wellbeing of our citizens," said Mayor Nancy Carroll in a follow-up interview.

In the last few years some properties were sold in the area with non-compliant septic systems with an understanding that the area would be hooking up to city utilities in the near future.

The proposed improvements include 6 inch PVC watermain around the Discovery Circle loop and 8 inch PVC sanitary sewer parallel to the watermain, including services from the mains to the property line. The existing bituminous street would be restored to a 28 foot width. Right now the road varies between 20 feet and 24 feet.

Olson said he has reviewed alternatives for the project including a cost estimate for putting water/sewer lines behind homes and that was more expensive.

The total estimated project cost is $917,500 and will be financed through special assessments and a city share. According to the city's assessment policy, the watermain and sanitary sewer mains are assessed at 100 percent, water and sewer services are assessed at 100 percent and streets are assessed at 60 percent.

The estimated assessment per lot in the Green Acres addition is $16,900. The city share is $162,800.

The assessment costs don't include the cost a property owner would incur by hiring a plumber to hook up a home to the mains. Olson recommends that if the council decides to move forward with the project each homeowner should have a plumber look at their property to get an estimate.

If the project moves forward an assessment hearing would be held after construction to determine the final costs. Assessments would first appear on the 2013 property tax statement.

The Park Rapids City Council decided to move forward with the design stage of the project to have more information and be able to answer more questions from property owners.

After the design portion of the project is completed the council will review it and make a decision. The project would be completed this summer between six and eight weeks if the council decides to move forward.

During the public comment portion of the hearing several people spoke up against the project. Some people who attended the hearing had questions and didn't voice an opinion in favor of or against the project.

Robert Wright, who has property on Discovery Circle, questioned why no grant funding was available to help with the project.

"A lot of the elderly can't afford a cent more," he said.

He also wondered why the permit for a property to connect to city water/sewer is $1,500.

City treasurer Angela Brumbaugh said the permit fee goes into the city's water/sewer fund that is used for capital improvements in the system.

Property owners with compliant systems would have up to three years to connect to city utilities if the city moves forward with the project, Carroll told those who attended the meeting. However, assessments would appear on property tax statements the year after the project is completed.

Property owner Josh Hawn asked Olson who would be able to bid on the project.

Olson explained that the contractor would need to be qualified with the necessary equipment and experience. Contractors for previous city projects have often been from the region.

Several people were concerned about drainage issues in the area and wondered if it would worsen because the road would be widened.

"It will not be any worse than it already is," Olson said.

During the design phase engineers will look at drainage issues and make sure those are addressed as part of the project, he said.

Property owner Art Wood was opposed to hooking up to the city's water because he said his water had better quality. He also had a new septic system installed three years ago so he would be paying twice within just a few years.

"This will bankrupt a lot of us," he said.

Mark Harmon agreed.

"Some people will be walking away from their homes," he said. " ... I see that there are some benefits but we're not the richest part of town."

Right now there are nine empty homes on Discovery Circle, with some due to foreclosure. He fears that more houses will be foreclosed on if the city moves forward on the utility project.

Connie Harsha said she has two children in wheelchairs and wondered if they would be able to get in and out of Discovery Circle during construction.

Olson said that during these projects contractors work closely with the property owners and make accommodations for special circumstances.

Harmon, who spoke earlier in the meeting, also asked if there was a way to get a bulk deal on the permits or a deal on meters because the project includes many homes. He said because the project includes existing homes and isn't a new development there are a lot of hardships.

City councilman Dave Konshok said there is no profit on the city's part for those fees. He wondered if it would be fair to others who had already paid for those fees for other projects.

Steve Bade said he thought it was a bad time to be doing this project because of the economy.

Others agreed and wondered if it would be more affordable to require upgrades to the existing systems.

Mark Waller wondered if the residents could pool money to fix everyone's systems because it would be a lot cheaper.

He pointed out that the city would be benefiting from property taxes on the recently annexed homes.

Jessica Leckner said she's proud to be neighbors with everyone on Discovery Circle.

"I'm fortunate that we will be able to figure out" how to pay for the assessments but she fears for her neighbors. "... Everyone should have a voice in whether this should happen."

Ryan Leckner asked if residents could organize a petition. The council didn't have an answer but said city staff could do some research to determine whether that was a possibility.

Margaret Morris said she was upset about the lack of communication between the city and property owners.

"You haven't talked to homeowners about this first. It's been frustrating," she said.

Roxanne Erickson wondered who would absorb the cost of the assessments when there are 20 empty houses in the development.

"What are we gaining out of this?" she questioned. "Why is it being shoved down our throats?"

Assessments stay with the property itself and would be passed on to the next owner.

Konshok said he realized this wasn't easy and sad the city would consider the feedback from residents.

Councilwoman Sue Tomte wondered if there would be some validity to addressing the major concerns before moving forward to the design phase of the project.

Konshok said the design phase would give the council more information to work with.

Councilman Pat Mikesh serves on the wellhead protection committee and said water in the Green Acres addition isn't good.

"The city does have to look at the long hall," he said.

The council voted to move forward with preliminary design of plans and specifications for the project.

Staff was also directed to bring information to a future council meeting addressing permit fees.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
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