As residents spoke for and against on June 3 a special taxing district proposed to help pay for improvements to Lake Orono, Elk River officials tried to find a way to adjust the boundaries to the proposed district.
Residents who live around Lake Orono, which comes in the middle of the Elk River, spoke for over two hours during a public forum on whether the city should establish a special taxing district that would assess lake residents each year to pay for maintenance and restoration of the area.
A local group, the Lake Orono Water Quality Committee, is looking to establish a special taxing district that would assess residents living around the lake $100 a year for ongoing water improvement projects. It circulated a petition to establish the district earlier this year and got many residents to support it. The city has to decide whether to allow the district before any assessments can happen.
Residents who oppose the district recently retained an attorney, who wrote a letter to the city outlining their objections. Minneapolis attorney Greg Miller said residents want to be excluded from the district because they don’t own lake property, won’t benefit from the improvements and feel the cost is an unfair burden.
On Monday night, area supporters stressed the benefits that would come with the assessment, arguing that the river and lake have persistent problems with pollution and sediment and that the district would benefit all residents.
Critics argued that they are not lake residents, but rather river residents, and want to be removed from the proposed district because they feel the special assessments wouldn’t benefit their properties. A few even accused proponents of “politician-speak” and charged them with making inaccurate or misleading statements.
The Elk River City Council did not vote on the item Monday. They asked city staff to prepare two kinds of resolutions — one establishing the district and another denying it — to consider when they meet again June 17.
Environmental coordinator Amanda Bednar said the city would approve the district’s annual budget and appoint the district’s board. Its boundaries are based on a DNR map of public waters.
The city sent notices of the hearing twice as well as direct mail, she said. City staff verified the signatures on the petition, and of 260 eligible homeowners, the 143 signatures supporting the creation of the district were found valid, making for the 55 percent approval required for the city to consider the petition.
Bednar said the same petition went to the Department of Natural Resources, which sent the city an advisory report. She mentioned they approve the district’s boundaries. She also recommended the DNR work with other local groups and government agencies concerned with the area.
Stormwater coordinator Brandon Wisner said that as a reservoir, the area has chronic water quality and sediment problems that project inside and outside the DNR’s boundaries. He called the petition “a well thought-out product” proposed within statute. The petition’s signatures are based on the households, not on the number on the lake shore.
Patrick Plant, director of the Lake Orono Water Quality Committee, noted that residents sent a letter of objection toward certain properties being included in the district, as well as a flyer to some residents with the same content. He said the committee aims to establish a special district to improve water across the entire watershed — all of Elk River. He said he worked with the city, Sherburne County and DNR staff on the legal definition of the lake, and on what they have to follow and have to include. He said the committee verified with the DNR that it’s their definition and it’s the only map they would consider and approve. The DNR has a process to modify the lake boundaries that would force the committee to restart the petition process. Plant said the DNR is, instead, reviewing and seeing if it can find scientific data that could modify the lake’s boundaries.
“If changed, we’d be bound to follow it,” he said.
He responded to another contention in the letter that some residents would get no benefit from the district. He said those residents will benefit and the district will assist in funding, augmenting city, state and county funding, and providing ongoing management of the lake.
“Anyone who wants to use it will have safer navigation and better habitat improvement,” he said.
The Elk River and Lake Orono are classified as impaired for nutrients, but their status moved from worst to better, and the committee’s goal is to improve those ratings.
“Anyone who lives on the Elk River will benefit because it will reduce sediment and pollution coming downstream,” he said.
The proposed district’s assessments are based on households on the DNR map, not parcels of land.
He responded to another point in the letter, which states residents are concerned about having to pay for multiple units. Plant said that is not the case: “A household is charged one unit and two parcels get charged for one unit unless they have more than 10 acres, which we don’t.”
City attorney Peter Beck explained the city didn’t start the petition but got a petition it is required to act on, and since it verified the signatures on the petition, is now required to have hearing. He said the city didn’t propose or approve the lake boundaries — the DNR did that.
“That’s not to say it couldn’t change,” he said. “These are boundaries that came to the city. Our role is to hold a hearing and determine whether it should be established.”
Beck said the city has 30 days either to establish or deny the district. Any city order can modify boundaries, functions or financing, but would have to be based on the DNR’s recommendation because the DNR determines the boundary.
The city would have to find that the district would promote public welfare, benefit property and won’t cause environmental pollution. If the council acts in two weeks, residents who object would have 30 days for a petition for a referendum — and 25 percent of owners in the proposed district would need to sign it — and the city would delay the process until a referendum is held. The city would conduct the referendum as if it were an election.
Beck said the process is unusual in the Elk River area and hasn’t happened within Elk River or Sherburne County, but city officials have worked with the Briggs Lake area district and the DNR.
During the public hearing, Gerald Palmer, an Island View Drive resident for 55 years, argued with Plant on several of the claims made in literature promoting Active Elk River and the petition, claiming they were false or misleading and arguing the assessments being proposed are unfair. Plant answered each of Palmer’s charges, explaining several of the processes used to determine how much residents would be charged.
Andrew Hulse, a lake resident for 12 years and a previous president of the Lake Orono Improvement Association, called Plant’s idea “the best (he’s) seen” but argued the district would give residents more control over management of the lake area.
Chris Lord, a Boston Street resident of eight years, felt dredging is needed because of the sediment in Lake Orono. He said he doesn’t want to be forced to pay for weed management, and things that only benefit certain residents should be kept separate from the district.
“Lakes are ecosystems, and fish don’t want to live in a swimming pool, but people want the lake to be a swimming pool,” he said.
Nina Reperson, who is one of the 10 residents who hired the attorney who wrote the objecting letter, said the map provided ends where her property begins, and while she understands DNR guidelines, she likes living on a riverfront but doesn’t want to be assessed the same fees as a Lake Orono resident. She claimed the curly leaf in the lake came from the public boat landing, not the owners.
“People use the river, so why are we paying for them?” she asked.
Plant said the landing was a source, and the majority of curly leaf is coming from upstream, which is why it’s critical to work with local watershed districts. Reperson and Plant discussed how Plant determined the assessments; he said he did it in the same way the city assessed property owners the last time Lake Orono was addressed in 1998.
Mark Person, a 189th Avenue resident, accused Plant of manipulating information to get consensus for the district. Plant answered that city staff determined that the way the signatures were counted is accurate. Person accused Plant of deception in the petition letter because the letter didn’t address how the district would affect property taxes. Plant said the petition form was based on similar forms, certified as appropriate by the DNR. Person replied, telling Plant he could’ve submitted it other ways. He told the council he thinks its city has an obligation to reject the petition, force Plant to bear the burden of redrawing the map, and charged that the petition “was not done in good faith.”
Christy Cox, president of the Lake Orono Improvement Association, said she understands the dilemma over the DNR map, but said that when she went out in the winter and got signatures, she was thanked for putting something in place for a reasonable cost. Dave Hugred, an Island View Drive resident and past lake association president, also said he favors the proposal, but wondered what the city would do if the petition failed. Dietz said the council would have to consider how to come up with the remaining money, either assessing property owners or dropping the matter entirely.
Doug Biebo, who lives on Island View Drive NW, across from an inlet, said he watches everything from his property and has seen a small sand bar has grown to the size of City Hall, where pontoon boats can now barely make it through. He said he won’t be able to leave his dock if it keeps growing.
Dan Kruger, of Queen Circle NW, countered that the 189th Avenue residents actually live on the river, but understands the DNR’s map. He said those river residents “will be fighting this” and should be excluded to avoid an ongoing battle. He also suggested the district change its assessment formula and charge based on lake frontage instead of a flat fee. He thinks the association could buy a weed harvester and use that once a week to limit chemical use and the cost of maintenance. He also suggested the city can set up grants for people on fixed incomes, who can lose their houses because of the assessments. He said he supports Plant’s efforts.