To many people, Lansing project worth the wait

Published 8:58 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It took a while to get to Monday night’s Austin City Council vote — 20 years, by some accounts — but the Lansing-area is getting its sewer.

For those who have been working toward a solution for some or all of that time, council’s decision was a welcome relief.

“I’m very thankful for the vote,” area resident Dan Franklin said afterward. “I’m thankful for all the hard work. We want to start protecting our environment.”

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Franklin lives in the Woodhaven addition of the Lansing area, where citizens have been dealing with sewage pipes discharging directly into the Cedar River for years. David Larson, another Woodhaven resident, said he’s been dealing with the issue for two decades.

“I’ve been working the last 20 years to obtain sewer in Woodhaven,” he told council on Monday.

Larson and Franklin both said they felt the process to get the Lansing sewer — which ultimately led to the area being annexed into Austin — was handled democratically and responsibly throughout.

That process included the formation of an ad-hoc committee, which began meeting in 2006, said Sheila Craig, who works with the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative and acted as a neutral facilitator for the committee.

The committee included representatives from all the areas involved in sewer discussions, with the number of representatives determined by the size of the particular neighborhoods.

Craig said this group put in a lot of work to weigh the pros and cons of getting a city sewer versus getting a sewer through Lansing Township. This included taking a look at potential costs of each plan, which showed that a city sewer would be cheaper for residents. The sewer project passed by the city Monday is actually even a little cheaper than the projection made several years ago.

After studying potential costs and other considerations, the ad-hoc committee voted 12-4 in favor of city sewer. A ballot was then sent to everyone in the proposed sewer area to gather more feedback. Of those who returned ballots, a majority were in favor of the city project.

Craig said she thought this process was handled fairly and showed that local residents, by-and-large, wanted city sewer.

“I felt we were pretty thorough,” Craig said.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to Craig, then, that recent City Council meetings became so heated, with a number of residents speaking out against the project. She also said it was surprising to hear people say they didn’t know about the project, because Craig said the ad-hoc committee made sure to send information to everyone involved.

“(There was) no one being annexed who was not part of that,” Craig said.

Despite the controversy that ended up swirling around the project, Craig said she’s just happy to see a project coming, noting that her role was never to advocate for city sewer versus township sewer.

“I’m glad to see that sewer improvement is going forward,” she said. “That’s the bottom line in my job.”

But even with the project on its way later this summer, there may still be some lingering issues in the Lansing area. Four area residents whose homes discharge directly into the Cedar River are currently entered into compliance agreements with the Minnesota Pollution Control agency. Those agreements state that $500 monthly fines will be assessed beginning on Jan. 1 if a solution isn’t in place, and Brian Green, an MPCA pollution control specialist based in Rochester, said the fines could come regardless of whether ground has been broken on the Lansing project.

“There’s always potential,” Green said. “We just have to address issues as they come up.”

City engineer Jon Erichson said that because the project was delayed as council dealt with citizen complaints, the sewer might not be completed in 2010 as originally planned. Though the engineer said ground will be broken later this year, he noted that it would take “a nice fall” to get work in before winter.

Erichson added in an e-mail that the city is not involved with compliance agreements between the MPCA and residents.