Lansing sewer project could be altered, but city is on the clock

Published 10:28 pm Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Another night, another delay for the proposed Lansing-area sewer project.

However, that’s not to say that progress wasn’t made. And that’s also not to say that a resolution — a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on the project going forward — is far away.

On Tuesday, Austin City Council resumed an assessment hearing on the project. Already bumped back once due to citizen concerns, council again decided to take at least another two weeks with the issue. But this time, they’ll be pondering whether to change the whole scope of the sewer plans, potentially only bringing a line to citizens in the Woodhaven neighborhood that seemingly need — and want — the service most.

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Council also knows they may not get any more chances to delay. Bids on the project, which the city engineer said are likely as low as they’ll ever be, have to be accepted by early August.

“That time is running out on us,” city engineer Jon Erichson said Tuesday.

In the meantime, council will be dealing with frustrated residents and trying to figure out a palatable plan. To date, 72 complaints have come in from the area — complaints that are slowing the process down, because those filing complaints now could file lawsuits in district court if the project proceeds.

According to a rough estimate by the city, such a legal process would, at the most, cost roughly $200,000, plus potentially another $1.1 million — or about a third of the total project cost — in lost assessments.

Because the city has stated that it doesn’t want to subsidize the project at all — putting the onus squarely on assessed residents, who would currently be paying at least $16,000 each — the potential for legal challenges is playing a major role. Unless residents drop their complaints, the safer route may be to adjust the project’s scope to bring service only to Woodhaven, a neighborhood in the farthest north part of the annexed Lansing area. Several citizens there have been threatened with $500 monthly fines beginning in January by the Minnesota Pollution Control agency for waste that is discharging directly into the Cedar River.

Erichson said unless the council is willing to risk legal battles, going this route may be the only option.

“If we’re not willing to (subsidize the project), we don’t really have any other alternatives,” the city engineer said.

However, such a change would likely mean that pipes wouldn’t get into the ground this year as originally planned. That’s because the city would essentially be starting over if the scope shifted to Woodhaven only, Erichson said.

“It would be very difficult to deliver a project in 2010,” Erichson added.

Citizens in support of the project, many of whom have remained relatively quiet until now, spoke up Tuesday and said they want to see a solution.

Lee Hansen, who lives in the Woodhaven area, said he and the residents around him deserve that solution.

“We were annexed into the city under the premise of delivering a sewer system,” he said to council. “I feel the city has an obligation to deliver that.”

Larry Gorden, who also lives in the Woodhaven neighborhood, said he is fully behind the project, even though he currently has a compliant septic system. He said that’s because the costs now would be well worth it — for everyone in the area.

“We can spend ($16,000) now and end it,” he said of area pollution problems. “I’m a strong advocate for moving forward with the system currently proposed.”

However, not everyone was as supportive, which has been the case with recent Lansing-area sewer meetings. A number of citizens said the assessments were unfair because they couldn’t afford them, or because they already have compliant systems, or because they were being charged for extra lots.

At one point, frustration almost boiled over into a confrontation, but Austin police Lt. John Mueller stepped in between two citizens who were jawing at each other.

As Mayor Tom Stiehm pointed out during the meeting, there will almost surely be angry people when a resolution is decided upon — no matter what that resolution is.

However, there was some time for levity during an otherwise tense City Council meeting. Before discussion of the Lansing-area project began in earnest, the city handed out its City Art Award to Bonnie Lee, meaning her piece will adorn a wall in City Hall.

While thanking council for the honor, Lee snuck in some sarcasm and a smile.

“And I want to thank all of you for coming out for this,” she said to the throng of people assembled to debate the sewer, a comment that elicited a room-full of chuckles.

But when council convenes next on July 19, the mood will again be serious as the clock ticks on the Lansing-area project.