Brainerd has approved the plans and specifications and approved the $8.4 million College Drive reconstruction project.
The vote by the Brainerd City Council Monday night was 4-3, with council members Mary Koep, Bob Olson and Kevin Goedker opposed.
The council also approved a settlement and purchase agreement with the state and Central Lakes College regarding land acquisition for the project. That vote also was 4-3, with Koep, Goedker and Olson against. Central Lakes College had petitioned the city for the project. With the college owning more than 35 percent of the land along the project, its petition allowed the council to proceed with the project through a simple majority vote instead of a super-majority vote (five votes).
The College Drive project will include four lanes from Crow Wing County Road 48 to South Fourth Street; reconstruction of College Drive and Crow Wing County Road 48 intersection; roundabouts at Mississippi River Parkway, Southwest Fourth Street and South Fourth Street; a stop light at Quince and South Fifth streets; repaving Quince Street to South Sixth Street; trails; sidewalks; bridge improvements; pedestrian crosswalks, flashers and deterrents; lighting improvements; and a backage road to accommodate the apartment buildings.
On Dec. 15 the city was served with a notice that the owners of the Colonywood Apartments along College Drive intended to appeal in district court the validity of a petition the city received for the project from Central Lakes College administrators.
The settlement and purchase agreement with CLC generated the most discussion Monday.
City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick said the agreement has three components: The city paying CLC about $258,000 for easements; CLC agreeing to pay about $359,000 in assessments; and the college has the right to repurchase the property should the project not be built within three years.
Fitzpatrick said he’s been running eminent domain action in court to acquire property from all property owners along the project. The agreement, he said, dismisses the state from the court action.
Koep had several questions concerning the agreement, including when and how the college negotiated the assessment, why the council hasn’t seen the assessment agreement, what happens if the assessments are more or less than proposed and why the city would pay the $5,000 appraisal expense incurred by CLC.
City Engineer Jeff Hulsether said negotiation wasn’t the correct term regarding assessments. He said assessment rates have been discussed throughout the project process. Fitzpatrick said CLC is entitled to $5,000 by law.
Olson questioned whether the city has a signed agreement regarding assessments. Fitzpatrick said there wasn’t a written agreement but an agreement in principle.
Olson also said he was told George Hoff, the League of Minnesota Cities-appointed attorney representing the city in the lawsuit filed by the owners of the apartments, told the court there was a signed agreement between the city and CLC regarding the college’s petition for the project.
Fitzpatrick said he didn’t know what document Olson was referring to and suggested Hoff could answer that question himself. He said Olson could be referring to exhibits, which the council has seen, that were entered into the court record. Olson made a motion to get court transcripts, but his motion died for lack of a second. Fitzpatrick said there would be no court transcripts in which Hoff has been involved.
Council member Lucy Nesheim made the motion to approve the agreement, saying the city had a valid petition from CLC and it was imperative to move forward.
Olson also noted that the League of Minnesota Cities special assessment guide states such assessments only should be ordered if a property sees significant increase in market value as a result of the project. That may be difficult in this case, he said. Fitzpatrick said the city intends to do that if agreements can’t be reached with the other property owners.
When asked by Olson if he would recommend approval of agreements from all property owners, Fitzpatrick said he would.
“Darn right I would agree to each one and I’d be as happy as I could be,” Fitzpatrick said.
Olson referred to a letter sent to the council by the owners of the Colonywood Apartments who objected to special assessments. In the letter, the apartment owners claim the project is not eligible for special assessments and that there is no assessment agreement with the college.
Fitzpatrick said a court hearing is scheduled April 21 on the apartment owner’s lawsuit. At that time each side will make its arguments, he said.
Olson said he wasn’t in favor of approving the agreement because he wanted time to review all documentation. Fitzpatrick said he couldn’t imagine why the council wouldn’t sign an agreement with any property owner and that it was important to sign the one with CLC now.
Council member Kelly Bevans said the agreement represented everything the city asked for — a purchase price, not having to go through eminent domain or a taking and the college paying its fair share.
And while the agreement had nothing to do with the other properties Bevans said it was the first piece of the puzzle.
“I know there’s people who don’t support the project but at this point a majority of the council did, so you have to support this this evening,” Bevans said. “This is everything we asked for. You can’t ask for everything and then say, ‘No, we don’t want it.’ Well you can but it’s somewhat contradictory.”
Nesheim said representatives from the college have been at every meeting regarding the College Drive reconstruction project over the past couple of years and have demonstrated their desire for improving the road.
Nesheim said the College Drive project was important not just for future investment but because it will put people to work in a city which has 18.1 percent unemployment.
“I’ve felt College Drive is crucial for future vitality of college, the high school and also the city,” Nesheim said. “I think this is an investment for our community and we have to go forward with this. It’s very, very crucial.”
Koep also allowed others affected by the project to speak. Igor Lenzner, the attorney representing the owners of Colonywood Apartments, addressed the council.
Nesheim started to speak in opposition, but Koep said she would allow it.
“There has been no time for these people to speak,” Koep said. “This is going through like gangbusters.”
Koep then directed a comment to those opposed to the project.
“As far as wasting your time in Crow Wing County Court, I’m sorry for you. Justice sees nothing there,” Koep said.
Lenzner said the concerns of the property owners was that if the appeal is granted CLC’s petition would be invalid and the project would have to come back to the council for either approval by super-majority vote or with no assessments.
“Our concern is the council continues to move forward putting the public’s tax dollars at risk without knowing the decision by court,” Lenzner said.
He said it was his belief the city continues to do so as a strategy to convince a judge to deny the appeal because millions of dollars had already been spent; and as a strategy for those council members in favor of the project to place blame on those opposed for wasting millions of dollars when the appeal is granted.
A third motion, to pass a resolution to not allow parking on College Drive per state aid requirements, was approved by a 4-3 vote, with Goedker, Olson and Koep against.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.