BAXTER — The Baxter City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday, Nov. 5, to order the improvement and plans for the controversial 2020 South Interceptor and North Forestview project during a tense meeting that underscored divisions between the city and affected residents over the project for more than a year.
The project has been billed as a means to establish environmental protections and renovate the area in preparation for sustained growth in the future, while opponents have lambasted the proposal as unnecessary and infeasible to residents along affected roadways of the $10 million initiative.
The project 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.
Tuesday’s proceedings were typified by what’s been a regular occurrence at meetings associated with the project — 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. The city previously set a cap of $15,000 on assessments to affected properties.
While that assessment figure matches what appraisers have estimated property values will increase with water/sewer lines, new roads and other amenities, Camwood Trail resident Rose Bankers said that’s an unlikely scenario and it doesn’t honor Minnesota Statute 429 (which pertains to special assessments) stipulations that assessments should be offset by property value increases.
“I don’t believe that to be true,” Bankers said. “I don’t know how you can come to that decision after one upgrade report.”
Mayor Darrel Olson asked if anyone had anything new to add to the discussion. When no one volunteered, he turned to the council.
“Let’s bring this back to the council,” Olson said. “It will give us an opportunity to think out loud. We’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
In turn, each council member gave explanations of varying length to defend their position.
Streets involved in the project 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.
Council member Mark Cross, the dissenting vote, returned to the matter of large property lots throughout the project area that may pump up assessment figures foisted on other parcel owners when it comes time to install subterranean infrastructure and new roads.
“These large lots are a problem. They’ve been a problem and continue to be a problem,” said Cross, who noted he’s owner of a large lot in a Baxter neighborhood that will likely see a similar project sooner than later. “Otherwise, I think we would have sewered the place and the whole city a long time ago.”
Cross noted that, whatever the arrangement in terms of assessments, it’s “going to be paid” eventually. He said it would still be significantly cheaper to inspect, maintain and install new septic tanks for a lot that would draw a cumulative $45,000 assessment and bring little in the way of new value or quality of life for residents on the stretch.
“I think moving forward on this is rather punitive,” Cross said. “I’m not in favor of it and I will continue to not vote for sewering the rest of the city.”
Council member Todd Holman said his rationale may not be shared, nor respected by a number of residents, but noted the decision is the result of years of exhaustive analysis, fund-seeking, planning and questioning.
The council is mandated to think in terms of decades and a holistic, greater-good conception of the city that can, at times, come into conflict with the concerns of affected residents on a stretch of road, Holman said, while problems can arise after years of erosion, ordinance revisions, and the emergence of unforeseen factors — such as a new elementary school, or the construction of Highway 371 and its effect on the city’s makeup.
“You have to think 10, 20, even 30 years into the future. You use the best information you have and try to think that long term,” Holman said. “Not many homeowners think that long term, but as a city you’re obligated to do that. We have to be thinking ‘Who is this serving?’”
Council member Zach Tabatt echoed Holman in stating the process was long, detailed and exhaustive, which — in concurrence with the advice of city staffers and engineering consultants — means going forward with the project is a prudent, if difficult, decision to make.
Kicking the decision down the road and ensuring that it won’t arise as an issue again isn't a promise the city council can make, he added.
“To say, ‘We will never have city services in this area,’ — it’s beyond our control,” Tabatt said. “Whether we want to or not, it just isn’t reasonable for the council to say.”
Council member Connie Lyscio observed the city is only 45% developed, while revamped roadways and a new artery of sewer lines can lay the groundwork for new developments and expansions in the future.
“I care and I vote with my heart and my conscience and my soul,” Lyscio said. “Honestly, today is when I made my decision I’m in support of the project and it’s painful, I understand, but I’m thinking big picture, growthwise and what we’ll hopefully leave for future children.”
Mayor Darrel Olson
Aided by Finance Director Jeremy Vacinek, Olson noted prior projects throughout the 2000s and 2010s levied assessments on par or significantly higher (accounting for inflation) than the $15,000 cap, to answer accusations the South Interceptor’s special assessments were exorbitant.
“Between 2000 to 2015, the street sewer/water project assessments ranged from $11,300 in 2002 to a high of $21,600 in 2015, while the median amount was $15,100 before inflation,” Vacinek said. “Factoring inflation, that 2002 project was at $16,300 and that 2015 project became about $23,700 today. So that median with inflation is a little over $20,000, or much higher than the $15,000 current assessment.”
Like Tabatt, Olson rejected the notion of kicking the can down the road and forcing the conversation on another council at a later date. Noting it was his opinion, Olson said he believes there’s a desire to develop the project area, which is in close proximity to Forestview Middle School and the coming new Baxter Elementary School. Future projects could be complicated with more septic systems and no subterranean infrastructure. As such, it may cost residents and the city more to install new sewer lines in the future.
Later, Olson observed the vote represents a significant step in the process, but the 2020 South Interceptor project isn’t irreversible or set in stone. In the meantime, engineers are authorized to draw up plans, with the project planned to be bidded out in January and come before the council for a decision in February of next year.