Photo: Bonnie Obremski/RepJ Caption: View of the Sorem family farm off Garrett Road and, on the horizon, the Saint Olaf College wind turbine. Some of the land might one day support a Northfield industrial park.
Note to readers: Please keep these questions in mind when reading the feature below and respond, if you would like, to help me move forward with coverage:
What are more benefits and shortcomings of a plan that would ask Northfield residents to pay for water and sewer lines to extend to newly annexed properties along the city’s northwest border?
Who can give current estimates of the cost of the proposed project to lay that infrastructure?
What do residents envision as the best use of the undeveloped farmland?
Are there questions surrounding the annexation proposal I have not yet attempted to answer?
Northfield is negotiating a deal with the adjacent Greenvale Township to annex 530 acres of farmland for industrial use but Northfielders and even some Greenvale residents are uncertain about the benefits of the transaction, which is now more than two years in the making.
City officials and engineers will attempt to inform the public about the annexation during a meeting on Thursday at 7 p.m.. A PowerPoint presentation and discussion will take place in Saint Olaf’s Buntrock Commons Viking Theater on 1520 St. Olaf Ave in anticipation of a crowd of perhaps 50 or more, Brian O’Connell, Northfield Community Development Director, said in his city hall office on Wednesday morning.
The most recent meeting regarding the annexation proposal, which drew some disgruntled township residents, happened on Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the Greenvale Town Hall off Route 23. During the meeting, O’Connell and Joel Walinski, interim Northfield City Administrator, presented a draft of an annexation agreement to township supervisors Richard Moore and Bernard Budin. Greenvale’s third supervisor Robert Winter was absent. About a dozen Greenvale residents sat in the audience.
One of the audience members, Wayne Peterson, said he did not know if Greenvale would benefit enough from giving up its land. In reply, O’Connell referenced the part of the draft agreement that indicates Greenvale will still receive its property taxes from the land for two years after the proposed annexation. He added that Northfield will also assume responsibility for paying to maintain the roads and other infrastructure on the property.
Two other township residents asked questions about the proposal including Gregory Langer and David Lorence. In addition to his questions, Langer told Moore he wished someone had advertised the meeting more widely because he understood many more people in the community would have attended had they known what was on the agenda.
After the meeting, Langer added he was concerned about the repeated absence of Supervisor Winter, since Winter is one of just three men who will make the ultimate decision about whether to approve an annexation agreement.
For Northfielders, one of the primary unknowns about the annexation agreement is what city residents might pay to extend infrastructure to the four new, undeveloped parcels of farmland, according to former planning commissioners Betsey Buckheit and Margit Johnson. The women informally discussed the annexation at the James Gang Hideaway café on Tuesday. Buckheit is a candidate for the 2nd Ward seat on City Council, a member of the Charter Commission and served as a planning commissioner from 2001 to 2005. Johnson is chairman of the Library Board and served as a commissioner from 1996 to 2000.
The farmland to be annexed is owned by John Fink of 320th Street West, Donald Lysne of 330th Street West, David Sorem of 32840 Garrett Avenue and Saint Olaf College. According to O’Connell, a report engineers completed in 2005 indicates the cost to lay water and sewer lines to that land would reach about $2.6 million. WSB & Associates Inc. of Minneapolis wrote the report. Additional construction costs could push the project’s price tag to about $4 million, O’Connell said.
Despite the report, O’Connell, Buckheit and Johnson confirmed there has been confusion among the community since 2005 about that dollar figure. Johnson said she once heard of a $15 million estimate. O’Connell said he believed the alleged higher estimates are unfounded.
Brett Weiss, president of the WSB firm, said on Wednesday it would be difficult to determine if the project’s cost estimates could be far outdated unless the firm took another hard look at the project.
Whatever the final cost, the city still has to reach an agreement about how to foot the bill, according to O’Connell. He said he would prefer adjusting the water and sewer rates to raise funds, instead of raising tax rates.
Most people seem to agree another major uncertainty exists in what companies might be interested in developing pieces of the properties, which together equal the area of about 402 football fields.
Kevin Green and Larry Larson of Land Vista LLC in Hastings are representing farmers Fink, Lysne and Sorem. Green said on Tuesday he has spoken with perhaps two interested developers and O’Connell confirmed he has seen a similar amount of interest.
However, the men each said those potential developers are far from making a commitment. As for what the landowners are seeking, Fink declined to comment on the proposed annexation, Sorem was out of town and Lysne did not return messages, Larson said on Monday.
During Tuesday night’s Greenvale meeting, Langer asked if some of Northfield’s city officials might be rushing the annexation proposal to reach an agreement before the Northfield sees the anticipated large turnover on City Council. O’Connell disagreed officials are rushing the agreement.
On Wednesday, O’Connell elaborated on that response saying officials have been working on the proposal in earnest for more than six months. Furthermore, he said annexing the land in question has been a development goal for decades, according to the city’s past comprehensive plans.
Some Northfielders have criticized an industrial development on the city’s outskirts will only detract from the viability of downtown commerce. O’Connell said he believed a city should have a range of developable property available to businesses that want to invest in Northfield.
Greenvale resident Lorence asked O’Connell and Walinski what would happen if Northfield citizens annex the farmland, build infrastructure and cannot attract desired industry. Walinski replied that Northfielders would recognize the process as a long-term investment.
Some annexation critics believe the city might grow desperate for a return on that potential investment sooner rather than later, however, and might opt to allow controversial businesses such as Wal-Mart to move in. O’Connell said business representatives approached city officials with an unspecified “big box” store proposal about a two years ago but, officials told those representatives there was not space for such a business in the city.
A Wal-Mart headquarters public relations representative agreed to search for a Northfield business proposal document last week, should such a document exist. That representative had not sent any information as of Wednesday. According to information on WalMartWatch.com, which is a campaign of the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics based in Washington, D.C., Wal-Mart has constructed stores even in communities with bylaws restricting big-box stores.
Johnson said the proposed annexation could lead to positive things in Northfield. She and Buckheit agreed with the widely held belief that the city should explore methods of boosting its industry because residential growth is out-pacing industrial growth. The right industrial development of that farmland could broaden the city’s tax base without causing too many negative repercussions, which could possibly include, they said, diminishment of the agricultural landscape or traffic tie-ups.
Northfielders are continuing to debate just what the “right” kind of development could be and they might have the opportunity to discuss the matter further during Thursday night’s meeting. In addition to O’Connell and Walinski, Frank Dunbar of Dunbar Developing Corp. in Long Lake, Jeff Shopek of Loucks and Associates in Osseo and Rick Estenson of the Northfield Economic Development Authority (EDA) will attend the meeting. Estenson works as vice president of business development at the First National Bank of Northfield. He is one of four members of the EDA.
O’Connell and Walinski scheduled another meeting to discuss annexation negotiations in early September.
(Note: In gathering information for this article I also spoke with most of the mayoral candidates, former Planning Commissioner Ronald Griffith, Victor and Kiffi Summa and a number of other city residents in passing. I also attempted to make appointments with representatives from the Malt-O-Meal cereal manufacturing plant and McLane food distributors to ask if those industries might consider expanding their facilities within Northfield. Neither company returned messages.)
Update 8/22: audio added
Question from local farmer Wayne Peterson. One minute.
Response from Northfield Community Development Director Brian O’Connell. One minute.
Update 8/23: Blog post title (previously named ‘Annexation center stage tonight’) has been renamed to ‘Business park proposal breeds uncertainty, officials attempt to clarify’
Update 9/6 David Johnson advises the Greenvale Township supervisors on Thursday in the video below. Also, as a clarification to this story, city administrators agreed that, for Northfield, the term “shovel ready” means to have most of the plans and permits in place to begin digging infrastructure. In that case, city residents might pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach shovel readiness, not millions.
Brian O’Connell asked me to clarify Dean Johnson’s job title and qualifications on Monday. Johnson responded to my question as follows: “I am a city planner. I spent 14 years in the public sector and have owned the consulting business for the past 18 years. Our clients include cities, townships, counties, regional agencies, and state departments.”
Finally, I upload the map of the Greenvale land in question.
A few Greenvale landowners are concerned that Northfield city administrators will walk away from annexation negotiations if township supervisors push too hard for higher compensation for 530 acres of farmland.
City officials hope to develop the acres along the city’s northwestern border into an industrial park.
Joel Walinski, Northfield’s interim city administrator, said on Wednesday he is still interested in negotiating with Greenvale’s three supervisors, but he could hardly see the city council agreeing to compensate the township by much more than the amount required by state law.
“I can guarantee you that is not the figure we will agree to,” Walinski said during a special meeting on Tuesday night, after hearing the supervisors ask for $500 for every acre annexed.
According to state law minimum requirements, cities only need compensate townships in an amount equivalent to property taxes on the annexed land across a period of two years. Richard Moore, Greenvale supervisor chariman, estimated the current tax rate at $12.50 per acre.
The city and township administrators did not discuss payment plans.
Perhaps further substantiating the fear of those concerned Greenvale landowners, Walinski added that the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) members are making progress with another possible annexation agreement with Bridgewater Township. It is not out of the question, he said, that EDA members could one day see reaching an agreement with Bridgewater as more attractive.
As of Wednesday, however, Richard Estenson, spokesperson for the EDA, said he is interested in pursuing both agreements.
“I can imagine many to suggest that since we have so many [of Greenvale’s] acres out in the northwest that we should not even bother with this [Bridgewater] area,” Estenson said. “But, it will be good to have some choices, and competition in the market can make for better pricing and decisions.”
Still, Bridgewater supervisors could conceivably ask for $500 an acre as compensation just as Greenvale has, according to information Greenvale’s hired consultant has given at meetings.
“I have consistently said the rate has become the ‘current standard,'” Dean Johnson, consultant and city planner, said in an e-mail on Wednesday. “I’m completing an orderly annexation agreement on behalf of the city of Cologne with Benton Township. That city has agreed to [that] base fee.”
Johnson said that other annexation agreement still has “some other unresolved points.” He does not necessarily expect Northfield will agree to the base fee Cologne did.
“I never guaranteed anything,” Johnson said. “That’s what individual negotiating is for. It’s always give and take.”
One of the Greenvale farmers, David Sorem, who has agreed to allow Northfield officials to annex 264 acres of his land spoke vehemently against asking for the so-called standard compensation figure.
“It’s my land, it’s not your land, it’s not these people’s land,” Sorem said, addressing the township supervisors, and an audience of about 20 people. “You’ve been getting taxes from my land forever. Now, if I want to take my land and give my taxes to somebody else, that’s my business.”
In addition to Sorem, two other Greenvale farmers have agreed to go forward with the annexation. They are John Fink, who would see about 136 acres of farmland annexed and Donald Lysne, who would see about 40 annexed. Saint Olaf College would see about 90 acres of taxable farmland annexed. Annexation discussions began nearly two years ago when a realtor representing the Greenvale farmers began speaking with city administrators about the farmers’ interest in seeking annexation.
The next Greenvale township meeting is on Tuesday, October 21 in the new township hall.
I apologize for misspelling Richard Estenson’s name when I first published this post.