Homeowners urge city to move on reassessments

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Austin City Council may be getting street assessments ready for the summer, but a group of property owners in what used to be part of Lansing Township made sure during the council’s meeting Tuesday night that the city hasn’t forgot about them.

More than 10 residents concerned about sewer assessments came to the council meeting Tuesday to urge city leaders to find solutions and reassess their properties, almost a year after the first of 33 property owners successfully sued the city to keep from paying a $15,000 assessment for the so-called Lansing Sewer Project, completed in 2011.

“This has gone on for more than five years,” Austin resident Jim Davis told the council. Davis asked the city why staff haven’t reappraised and reassessed his and other properties that were annexed into Austin in 2009.

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The controversy started in 2006, when Austin and Lansing officials formed a committee to fix the township’s sewer issues, which included several properties piping sewage into the Cedar River. The committee eventually recommended Austin annex Lansing to connect homes to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Austin annexed 209.5 parcels of land in 2009 and charged each parcel $15,000 for a large-scale sewer project completed in 2011.

District Judge Donald Rysavy set aside the assessments in April of last year, as the city couldn’t conclusively prove each parcel’s net worth increased by the cost of the assessment per state law in a lawsuit the month before.

“Any owner suddenly confronted with an assessment 100 percent more than the actual value of the existing property would be foolish not to simply deed the property to the city,” Rysavy wrote in his March 2013 ruling. “There can be no clearer example of unconstitutional taking.”

City officials say they have worked with their lawyers and the League of Minnesota Cities to explore options for reassessing the properties, though Davis said the city was supposed to take action by last October.

Davis expressed frustration with the city for not taking quicker action.

“What’s the delay?” he asked.

Mayor Tom Stiehm was sympathetic to Davis and other property owners.

“It’s something we should be taking care of,” he told them.

In other news, the council:

—Moved forward on four street reconstruction projects. Council members approved plans to improve streets and sidewalks for Eighth Avenue Southwest (12th Street to 18th Street), Eighth Street Northwest (17th Avenue to 18th Avenue) and 17th Avenue Northwest (Fourth to Eighth Street), the Kaufman Park Area (Ninth Avenue Southeast from the abandoned railroad to Eighth Street, 10th Avenue Southeast from the railroad to Eighth Street, 11th Avenue Southeast from the railroad to Eighth Street, Sixth Street Southeast from Eighth to 10th Avenue, and Seventh Street Southeast from Eighth to 11th Avenue), and Seventh Street Northeast (Second to Fourth Avenue) and Third Avenue Northeast from Seventh to Eighth Street.

Council members decided to drop plans for a sidewalk on Sixth Street Southeast from Ninth to 10th Avenue after resident Jon Pike and others came forward to argue the sidewalk would severely cut into front yards on already-packed housing and create parking issues, among other things.

“I’m happy [with the decision],” Pike said. “It’s a dead-end street.”

—Moved forward on a potential ordinance to allow businesses to use sandwich boards on sidewalks. The city currently allows sandwich boards in some cases but only on private property.

—Decided to not sell one of the city’s hangars at the Austin Municipal Airport. Public Works Director Steven Lang said a regional company had come forward to purchase hanger No. 3, but the city uses that hanger to store snow removal equipment and other items.

—Will discuss moving a polling location for the upcoming election. City officials say the Austin Public Library has experienced space and technical issues over the past several elections. Council Member Judy Enright said Riverland Community College may step forward and offer its Austin East campus gym as an alternative.