BAXTER-More than 80 people packed Baxter City Council chambers Tuesday, Jan. 8, and the majority learned within a short time their wishes would be granted.
After reading petitions, letters, reports and testimony from previous meetings, speaking and meeting with residents, Mayor Darrel Olson said the council was ready to discuss the south interceptor and North Forestview project-consisting of a sanitary sewer main, water main, stormwater outlet and street work. To say the project has been controversial may be an understatement as people searched for parking spaces and continued to file into the council chambers long after nearly every chair was taken. One resident said more people were at Tuesday's meeting than the packed Dec. 20 public hearing.
At issue is a street project with a plan to reroute the sanitary sewer line from the city's southwest side to a more direct path to the treatment plant. For the city, project goals included providing environmental projections for the Mississippi River and groundwater. The work would provide city water and sewer to an established neighborhood currently served by individual septic systems and wells. But the cost to bring those services to the neighborhood came with estimates of individual assessments starting at $25,000 to be paid over 15 years. The estimated price tag for the project is about $9.5 million.
In December, Michael Hopps, who lives in the project area on Camwood Trail, said people would lose their homes because of the expense.
The agenda item came on the first meeting for new council members Zach Tabatt and Connie Lyscio, who were sworn in about 20 minutes before the meeting started.
Lyscio said it was a lot of information to digest and try and understand, even overwhelming.
"I've lost sleep but met several people," Lyscio said, adding she decided to run for office because she cared. "... As a person who feels like I need to gather more information before I can make a decision I'm going to-for my own well-being and for everybody's here-I would like to propose that this be postponed, project as is, because I can't accept it the way it is right now."
Olson asked Lyscio if she had any ideas regarding a length of postponement.
"I don't know that I can put a deadline on that," she said. "I just don't feel comfortable with the dollar amount, with the heartfelt stories people have shared with me and I try to put myself in the homeowners' position and look at this astronomical cost for something that the people I spoke to and heard from didn't want nor do they believe they need. I'm not saying that's 100 percent accurate because I don't have all the facts. I don't have all the information. It will take me time."
Lyscio said she understands the project has been in the works for a quite some time. But new to the council, Lyscio said she needed more time and can't vote yes on the project as it is. Olson said it was unfortunate as the decision should have probably been made, one way or the other, before the new council members stepped into the meat grinder and he appreciated their position.
Tabatt echoed Lyscio's concerns.
"I would say that it might be worth our time to look further at details if this project is something that the engineers are saying absolutely has to be done, I'd like more actual data to support that and I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe that there is data supporting them over the public comment I've heard so far. The cost is extremely high and I'm not convinced that the need is there at this time."
Tabatt said aspects like the roads have more direct obvious need and suggested moving forward with a modified project or taking time to rehash the data behind making a decision either way.
Council member Mark Cross said he believes the sewer and water line is needed for the greater good of the city's southwest corridor but it can go in without necessarily going through the neighborhood.
"I'm not in favor of the project the way it sits because of cost," Cross said. " ... The developers got away with putting in big lots without putting in any sewer or water and now we're asking the people here in the audience to foot the bill for it."
Cross said he wasn't hearing people wanted to split their lots up and go with a home every 100 feet in that neighborhood. The interceptor line is needed, Cross said, and was always expected to be a cost borne by the city.
Council member Todd Holman said looking just at the cost of the street work was about $9,400 per lot. Holman said an official appraisal stated the increased value to the properties would be about $15,000 to $19,000. He said a valid comment at the last meeting was that the city failed to make a good argument for why the work was needed.
But from the comments from other council members, Holman said it was obvious the project did not have the votes needed to go forward. He went over the history of development in the city noting at the time when most of the building occured-in the late 1980s and early 1990s-it was compliant with the regulations and it's in hindsight that it would be nice to have greater housing density to lower the assessments overall. He noted there are ways to increase density so snowplows go past eight houses instead of four.
When the city was told if it didn't expand its wastewater treatment capacity, all subdivisions would have to stop, Holman said the city took on a $12 million debt to do so with the idea to pay for those improvements by hooking up properties to water and sewer.
Holman said the council will also have to stand before the rest of the city residents who were not in the room Tuesday.
Holman recommended the city look at how it will guide policy and ordinances for established neighborhoods, the five or six like the Forestview area that are developed but not served by city water and sewer, take into consideration other neighborhoods already living with their assessments and be clear about priorities. Holman suggested setting a $15,000 cap on assessments with one to five years allowed before they need to hook up to the system.
"I hope we can come to those conclusions by the end of the year," he said.
Olson said these projects are the toughest part of the job when people have assessment fees of about $20,000 and this project was by far the most expensive and far-reaching. With this project slated for 2019 going down in flames, Olson asked what was Plan B.
Olson said the interceptor is still a big project and he believed it should probably still go through the neighborhood because it is the less costly route and the pipe will be there for the residents to take advantage of in the future.
"In the meantime, if we can hold off for a year or two before the pressure and demand is there to absolutely have it, it gives us time to relook at some of the things we've been talking about-the environmental issues, the assessment situation," Olson said.
Olson added Holman was absolutely right as the council will have to answer to the residents who have already been in assessment situations.
In the end, the council voted 4-1 against adopting the resolution to proceed on the project, with Holman opposed, gaining spontaneous applause from the crowd. Olson thanked the people for their involvement in the process.