Baxter City Council moves forward with controversial South Interceptor project
Faced with calls to discontinue the project to avoid financial hardships for homeowners, but also facing environmental concerns and legal ramifications if the project doesn't go forward, Mayor Darrel Olson was candid. "I always hate these decisions," he said. "They keep me up at night."
BAXTER -- The South Interceptor and North Forestview project is taking another step forward, this time to the drawing board, but not without widespread and vehement opposition to the initiative from residents on the affected roads.
Roughly 80 residents packed Baxter City Hall during its city council meeting Tuesday, Aug. 20, to voice their opposition to the project. It involves the reconstruction of deteriorating roadways around North Forestview Drive, which -- in light of a new Baxter Elementary School and related infrastructure being constructed nearby -- also presents an opportunity to install sewer and water lines to a number of properties adjoining the route.
Ultimately, after a long and tense public hearing, council members deliberated and voted to move forward with an update to the feasibility study for the proposed project -- a 4-1 vote, with council member Mark Cross dissenting.
In addition, council members voiced approval for a cap to associated assessments at $15,000, with an additional provision to extend the deadline to hook up sewer and water lines to individual properties from one year to five years, so as to alleviate financial pressures on affected residents.
These pressures weighed heavily on proceedings -- discussions marked by urgent statements from homeowners on the affected streets, who pointed at the looming prospect of financial hardships, bankruptcy, foreclosures and lost opportunities to sell properties and move. In addition, some residents spoke to mixed and confusing messages, a lack of availability and sometimes callous indifference from city staffers when they asked questions.
“I don’t think people’s voices are being heard,” said resident Roy Hurin, who echoed many others as describing the push to install subterranean infrastructure as unnecessary, unwanted and infeasible for most affected property owners.
“I don’t care if it comes from the city, or my own pocket, that’s poor stewardship and that’s why I’m against this project,” resident Rose Bankers said.
Former state Rep. John Ward speculated the city could be breaking State Statute 429 if the assessments don’t correspond with property value increases.
Council member Todd Holman noted the properties had been assessed and it was projected each parcel would see a roughly $15,000 increase with sewer and stormwater installed, hence that cap -- a statement that was met with a resounding “No!” and derisive jeers from the audience. One man noted the county values properties in these areas nearly identically -- whether they have subterranean sewer lines or septic tanks.
“I’ve never heard anyone say ‘Oh, we need the South Interceptor,” Ward said. “I have heard people tell me, ‘Don’t assess me out of my house.’”
The city has billed the project as measures to protect the environment and comply with state water purity standards, as properties on these streets are serviced by septic tanks -- many of them aging and lacking any kind of certified testing for decades. While homeowners have challenged city staffers to come out and test their septic tanks to prove sewer lines are unnecessary, Mayor Darrel Olson observed dryly they’ve often been reluctant to allow city employees on their properties.
Streets involved in the North Forestview project talks include Chestnut Drive, Camwood Trail, Scenic River Drive, Mississippi Road, Forestview Drive, Land O Lakes Road, Loredo Road and Fuschia Drive -- roadways in southeast Baxter, near the Mississippi River. Of these, Forestview is in the worst condition, while Camwood and Scenic River are next in line in terms of deterioration.
Currently, those properties depend on septic tanks and wells, while it's in the comprehensive city plan to install water and sewer lines into R-1 residential properties. They've been characterized by residents who spoke as larger open parcels, owned by property owners with a variety of incomes and personal wealth, though mostly middle class.
In December 2018, critics lambasted the water main and sewer portions of the project as unnecessary -- with total project assessments standing at $25,000 on the low end, with some climbing over $60,000 through 15 years, of which $17,000 is unable to be deferred -- and delivering crushing costs to property owners who have to fund initiatives to retroactively install subterranean infrastructure. Early estimates place the project at roughly $9.5 million.
Resident Michael Hopps disagreed with merits for proposals for a $15,000 cap, stating that’s still too high for many residents and may bankrupt them in the process, particularly if they can’t convince homebuyers potential to take on pending and, as yet, unknown assessments when they purchase the property.