Concern halts sewer project

Published 7:33 am Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Enough frustrated citizens voiced concerns to halt the proposed Lansing-area sewer project — for now.

Monday night was supposed to be when City Council approved final assessments on the project, but city engineer Jon Erichson reported that he had received roughly 40 complaint letters since Friday afternoon. With a large — and mostly agitated — crowd in attendance, council voted to push back the assessment hearing to July 6.

In the meantime, Erichson said he would try to set up meetings with each of the roughly 40 concerned citizens. At issue is the cost of the project assessed to residents, which is currently slated to be about $15,000 to $17,000 for each of the 209 affected properties, depending on the type of sewer required for specific areas. This would cover the entire cost of the project, with the city responsible for securing bids and overseeing installation, but not for funding.

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Erichson said the overall cost of the project is lower than he estimated — and perhaps lower than the city could hope for in the future — but a number of residents have complained that a $15,000 to $17,000 assessment is too large, especially on properties that are worth essentially that same amount.

“No one here is an idiot,” citizen Bob Allen said to the council. “We all know what money is.”

Other citizens voiced similar opinions, but councilman Steve King said he was worried about those who weren’t at the meeting to speak — citizens in favor of the project.

“It’s the silent majority I’m worried about,” he said. “Where are they?”

Indeed, people in favor of the project should represent a majority, as it was a Lansing citizen petition that got the process started years ago. Ultimately, that led to the city’s annexation of the Lansing area and the beginning of the current sewer project. One citizen proponent of the project did speak up, but he was largely outnumbered by those against the sewer, and at times they yelled at him during his address to council.

With the Cedar River — which is where many Lansing-area homes currently discharge waste — currently ranked as one of the five most polluted rivers in the country, the need for the project is clearly defined. Without local involvement, the state’s pollution agency is expected to crack down, and already several non-compliant residents could be facing monthly fines beginning early next year if the situation doesn’t improve.

But many residents do have compliant septic systems, and some of them have argued that paying to get a new sewer doesn’t make sense for them.

The proposed assessment agreement does allow them a five-year window to stay with their own system, but for many, that’s not enough.

“If you’re a businessman, you’re surely not going to be putting $15,000 into a lot where you’re not going to get anything out of it,” area resident Mike Schuster said. “I understand some of (the project), but it just doesn’t make sense (overall).”

One area land owner claimed that the city might even be breaking state law. John Howe, who owns a Lansing-area property and is also the mayor of Red Wing, Minn., said that Minnesota statute clearly states that an assessment amount should be equal to how much a property’s value would increase due to a project. Because of this, Howe said, it may be unconstitutional for a local government to simply assess for the cost of the whole project by dividing the price among affected residents.

Erichson said it was his understanding that in this case, the affected citizens were responsible for figuring out how much their property values would increase due to a new sewer. To date, no such analysis has been done, the engineer said.

However, Erichson did acknowledge that he could see potential legal challenges along these lines. By law, citizens that have issues with an assessment after the assessment process is over can file an appeal in district court.