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Erik Burgess, Published March 27 2014

Moorhead mayor says Oakport annexation will likely proceed as planned

MOORHEAD – With some residents welcoming the change and others still staunchly opposed, the mayor of Moorhead said it’s “highly unlikely” the long-planned annexation of Oakport won’t happen next year.

Before an open house Thursday, Mayor Del Rae Williams said she didn’t see “any reason not to” move forward with annexing a large swath of Oakport Township, set to occur on Jan. 1.

The meeting room at the Hjemkomst Center was packed with Oakport residents learning about how much recycling will cost, where streetlights will be placed and how snow removal will work.

Last month, the Moorhead City Council was set to vote on an “initiating resolution,” an administrative step necessary before the annexation that would allow, for example, the county auditor to reconfigure Oakport tax zones.

But Councilman Steve Gehrtz said that maybe the annexation, agreed to and finalized in 1990, was not right for current-day residents. Some concerned Oakport residents chimed in, and the council delayed voting on the initiating resolution until after Thursday’s open house.

Opinions at the Hjemkomst Center were mixed. Some, like Oakport resident Bruce Harmon, welcomed the annexation, saying it meant Oakport would benefit from Moorhead’s police, fire and recycling services.

“I think we had 25 years to say ‘no’ to it,” said Harmon, 66, who’s lived in Oakport since 1980. “I think it’s going to be a good thing. I don’t think it’s going to change (Oakport) all that much.”

Oakport now contracts with Dilworth for firefighters, and the Clay County Sheriff’s Office provides police services. Oakport also contracts for its snow removal services and Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said they plan to keep that contractor.

Others residents, like 69-year-old Henry Pietrzak, had concerns that Moorhead was maybe biting off more than it can chew.

“Moorhead seems to have budget problems all the time,” he said. “They’re always at the table asking for more money, digging into other departments or asking the taxpayer. That maybe concerns me a little bit.”

Larry Carlson, 66, said he moved to Oakport in 1996 after the annexation agreement was made, so he accepts it as “pretty much a done deal.” Still, he knows his taxes will go up, and he just hopes the services will be worth it.

A $200,000 home in Oakport can expect to see about a $531 bump in property taxes next year, according a Moorhead newsletter.

There’s also a desire to keep Oakport’s “countryside living,” Carlson said. The city is allowing him and others to continue using well water, he said.

Moorhead created a “rural residential” zoning district specifically for Oakport, which means, for example, curb and gutters won’t be required after annexation and existing horse farms will be grandfathered in.

One man, who declined to give his name, complained of the city’s plan to set up more streetlights in Oakport. When asked of the annexation, he said simply: “We don’t want it.”

Donna Atherton, an Oakport resident since 1981, said there’s a streetlight planned right on her corner, which she is OK with because streetlights bring some safety and security.

“I don’t want to pay for it,” she said with a laugh, “but otherwise I think it’s a good thing.”

The annexation was agreed to and finalized in 1990, at a time when Oakport had serious contamination issues with its rural wells and septic systems. Moorhead agreed to invest in the township, connecting it to some city services, in exchange for its annexation 25 years later.

To alter the annexation now would require Oakport, Moorhead and state officials to draft a new agreement, Redlinger said.

Williams said she doesn’t see that happening.

“If I can gauge the City Council, I think they feel like ‘Let’s just move on,’” she said. “I think citizens have really changed since they’ve learned a lot more about it. The tone has really changed.”

The City Council is set to discuss the initiating resolution again April 14.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518