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Ryan Johnson, Published February 22 2014

Some in Oakport Township question annexation move

MOORHEAD – The City Council here should hold off on voting Monday for the next step to annex Oakport Township and give affected residents more time to weigh in, Councilman Steve Gehrtz said Saturday.

But other city officials who spoke with The Forum said Monday’s vote is just a formality, and annexation as agreed to in 1990 by both communities is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Gehrtz raised the issue at last week’s council meeting, questioning if city officials should approve an “initiating resolution” on Monday’s agenda.

Oakport Township Chairman Jeff Schaumann said the town board agreed after that meeting to inform residents of the upcoming changes and seek their opinion. He was surprised at the results – about 80 percent of respondents opposed annexation.

To get their thoughts, Schaumann said he sent an email to the 420 or so residents who had previously signed up for news updates from the township of about 1,800. Of those, 80 to 90 have replied in recent days, with 80 percent opposing.

“We leave it up to whoever to decide if that’s a representative sample,” he said, adding he expects many residents could be at Monday’s meeting.

But Councilwoman Nancy Otto, who represents Moorhead’s 1st Ward on the north side and has served on the Oakport Joint Powers Board for 15 years, said people have known “full well for quite some time” about the annexation.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that Jeff took that poll before we’ve even had a chance to meet with the residents there,” she said, adding there’s still plenty of “misinformation” about the upcoming change.

Changes

Otto said the 1990 agreement came about when Oakport was in a “very tough” situation – the growing community’s rural wells and septic systems couldn’t keep up with the population, causing “serious contamination issues” and threats of action by the state and county over its sewage woes.

Moorhead agreed to invest in the township, connecting it to many city services in exchange for its annexation 25 years later.

But while that shift into city limits for about two-thirds of Oakport’s 1,800 residents has been in the works for years, Schaumann, who’s served as township chairman for three years, said specific information about its impact was only released by Moorhead in recent days.

“Just this past week was the first time the council started to see from the city staff what some of the impacts to their residents would be,” he said.

Annexation will bring some benefits, he said, including more city services such as curbside recycling and yard waste pickup and a greater likelihood of completing the final phases of permanent flood protection.

But Schaumann said the average homeowner will face $300 to $500 of higher fees and taxes each year, and many worry they’ll lose one of the biggest assets of Oakport – “being able to live a rural lifestyle without much government intrusion.”

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said city officials have worked to address that, which is why the portion of Oakport set for annexation will be in a newly created “rural residential zone” that will have unique exemptions.

While Moorhead residents aren’t allowed to operate snowmobiles or ATVs in city limits, Oakport residents will be able to on private property. Curbs, gutters and sidewalks won’t be required after annexation, and the horse farms now in place will be grandfathered in.

“We wouldn’t want to change what they are,” she said. “That’s another choice that people can have when they want to move to Moorhead.”

Williams said she heard from one Oakport resident who had to pay $1,400 for homeowners insurance because the township is now in the Dilworth fire district. If it was instead protected by the Moorhead Fire Department, a full-time, non-volunteer department, his annual payment would’ve been half of that, she said.

Schaumann said the newly created rural residential zone would address a “portion” of the concern. Still, he said many now-unlit neighborhoods would be required to add streetlights, and residents could no longer drive ATVs or snowmobiles on roads.

“While I appreciate this idea of a rural residential district, all that really says in real terms is that we can have a house on a large lot and we can have a small shop behind our home,” he said.

Done deal?

While he said he doesn’t have a personal opinion if Oakport should be annexed, Schaumann wants residents to be given the “courtesy of a discussion” before it’s irreversible.

Moorhead officials had previously planned an informational meeting for Oakport residents in late April, but some council members asked at last week’s meeting to instead try to schedule it for March.

The 24-year-old agreement isn’t in debate, Schaumann said, and Oakport will “certainly abide” by the final decision. Still, he said the real question now is if an agreement signed in 1990 is still appropriate for both sides.

“I just think it’s shortsighted, and I just encourage everybody to take a step back and not try to sprint to the finish line,” he said.

Gehrtz, too, said he wants the council to allow the “democratic process” to take place before this resolution comes up for a vote. If the council does act on it at Monday’s meeting, he said he would have to vote against it.

“There may be some people on the council that made up their mind,” he said. “They may see it as an agreement that was done 23 years ago and that now it’s time they bring closure to it. But I think it would be respectful to the citizens of Oakport to allow them at least input prior to the vote.”

Councilwoman Mari Dailey said the title – an “initiating resolution” – can be confusing because it wouldn’t initiate anything.

“It’s kind of an end of the road thing, one of the final steps,” she said.

This resolution would give Clay County officials permission to start preparing for changes that will happen with annexation, such as lining up property tax information and parcel numbers, she said.

Councilwoman Heidi Durand said she’s frustrated by the concerns raised so late in the game, and said both Oakport and Moorhead would have to agree in order to change the plan set in place in 1990.

“I’ve been disappointed that elected officials would send a message to residents saying, ‘Well, you know we can stop this,’ because I don’t think we can,” she said. “That boat has launched. This is just a formality on Monday that we’d be passing. This council is not deciding to annex Oakport. That was done decades ago.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587