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Marino Eccher, Published August 05 2010

Special assessment draws protest

When Mark Sell first learned his home on the corner of 25th Street South and 64th Avenue in Fargo would be subject to a special assessment fee to help pay for a nearby high school project, he braced himself for the cost, which he thought might run as high as $30,000.

The assessment estimate came in last month at $52,237.

His next-door neighbors are on the hook for $61,100. A local church up the road owes $130,000. A developer with land to the south owes $1.1 million for less than $70,000 worth of vacant land.

“I understand things cost money,” Sell said, “but it’s huge. The neighborhood is up in arms.”

Sell and his neighbors are footing most of the bill for infrastructure improvements associated with Fargo Davies High School, a new 9-12 school that will open at 70th Avenue and 25th Street in fall 2011.

Construction on the school is well under way, but 25th Street needs to be paved and expanded – the road is gravel south of 58th Avenue – and the underlying sanitation and sewage system needs to be upgraded.

Those improvements will cost millions of dollars, according to Danny Eberhardt, special assessments coordinator for the city of Fargo – as much as $6 million for the underground work, and $7.2 million for the roads (Eberhardt later said some bids had come in lower than expected, but he had not yet calculated the overall cost reduction).

To pay for the majority of those costs, a special assessment was levied on a few square miles of land on and around 25th Street South, bound by 58th and 73rd avenues.

Property owners were assessed 39 cents for sewage and sanitation for every square foot of land, $20 for every foot of road with indirect access to 25th Street, and $150 for every foot bordering 25th Street directly.

Eberhardt said assessment payments typically are spread out over 25 years, and accrue interest.

He said reactions to the assessments estimates have “gone both ways.” He said some landowners “do have a little bit of sticker shock,” particularly those who own larger plots of land.

That’s the case for Darvin Becker, a retiree who lives with his wife, Marcella, in a modest bi-level – 1,244 square feet, valued at $152,000 – on the 6200 block of 25th Street South.

The home sits on two lots. Becker said when he bought the home in the 1970s, he was required to buy the second lot as part of the deal.

Now, he’s facing a $32,000 assessment for the home, and an identical charge for the second lot, valued at $22,900.

Becker’s neighbor to the north, Craig Johnson, owes more than $76,000 on two lots – including $32,000 for a vacant lot valued at less than $12,000.

“I feel like we got stuck with the bill,” Becker said.

The Shepherd of the Prairie church at 6151 25th St. S. was assessed $130,000. Alex Macdonald, the church’s treasurer, said the charge is “a financial hardship” for the Moravian congregation of about 80.

He said the church plans to protest the charge. He’s not alone: Lori Gerhardson, a Realtor who is dating a resident in the impacted area, enlisted a lawyer to draw up a sample letter of protest to the road charges. She has circulated copies to a number of residents. Among the complaints: The area of assessment is too small, the road work will benefit residents well outside of the assessed area, and the added debt will make it difficult to sell affected homes.

She said 50 percent of homeowners in the area must protest by Aug. 6 to trigger a review of the assessment. The sewage and sanitation charges can no longer be disputed.

The Davies High School project was a topic of contention when it was first announced. Some residents wanted a direct vote on the project but did not get one.

Mike Williams, the only member of the Fargo City Commission who objected to the project at the time, said the high special assessment charges underscore the need to work with existing infrastructure rather than expand into remote sites.

“I thought it was premature expansion to put the school out that far,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502