Noncompliant properties a conundrum in Harris

The Harris City Council ran into a conundrum with city properties that are in violation of zoning and building regulations.

The question is whether to enforce the regulations and allow the non-compliance to exist as it has, in some cases, for years, or enforce the regulations and potentially have empty buildings in Harris. The council was split on what action should be taken even after reviewing the different situations.

The Harris Planning Commission had brought recommendations on a number of properties that appeared to be noncompliant. The commission had sent out notices to the property owners, and a hearing was held Dec. 2, 2013.  At that time, the property owners were able to plead their case about their properties. In one instance, a property owner was able to produce a building permit that had been issued years prior that allowed the noncompliant situation on his property. In other cases, no documentation was produced.

Some property owners were able to apply for a special use permit or a conditional use permit. Some situations, which are noncompliant in that specific zoning area, are allowed under one of those two permits. Other situations were not that easy to rectify.

At the March 3 Planning Commission meeting, action was taken on all of the issues. Of the many noncompliant properties, only three were issued cease and desist orders. The property owners were given 60 days to comply with the regulations. After the 60 days, it will be up to the council to decide what happens next.

The council noted it is possible to issue an interim use permit, which allows a noncompliant situation to continue to exist, but the permit ends upon the sale or transfer of the property.

It was finally decided that since there is a 60-day window before enforcement commences, a joint workshop will be held with both the Planning Commission and the City Council. The Planning Commission has spent the time and effort in identifying the noncompliant properties and working with the property owners, but the City Council will make the ultimate decision as to what happens to those properties.

Frozen water pipes 

The other issue that the council struggled with was frozen water pipes. Wendell Swanson came before the council to request forbearance on his and his mother’s water bills and to ask who is responsible for the thawing of the pipes. Swanson’s mother’s water line has been frozen for most of February.

Swanson has been carting water to his mother’s for her to use. An attempt was made to jet the line with hot water to thaw the pipe. The plumber that they had hired was able to reach the shut off valve. Harris Wellhead Protection Plan Committee Member George Valvoda was on location to make sure the valve was in the open position and not blocking anything.

The plumber then continued approximately 60 feet, under the road and to the other side. At that point, even though the ice was still there, it was necessary to quit.

Swanson has run a garden hose from his residence to his mother’s.

Valvoda was able to reverse the water meter, so his mother’s meter will register her usage on Swanson’s water bill. The council decided that during this period, Swanson’s mother will not be billed, and Swanson will pay the average of his last three bills instead of the actual amount of water used.

But the question arose as to who is responsible for the plumber’s bill since the jetting went past the shutoff. Councilman Randy Carlson compared it to the electric service. The meter is the electric company’s equipment and responsibility, from the meter to the house and inside is the residents’.

But Mayor Diane Miller said that the ordinances the city has for the water service are not that specific. There is no clear point of demarcation that states who is responsible for what. Miller indicated that one portion of the ordinance indicates it is the property owner’s responsibility to pay to hook up to the main, which would imply that is what the resident would have to pay if there is a break or freeze up. But since, as in this case, the water line is under the city street, the city would not allow the resident to excavate in the street to unfreeze the lines.

It was finally decided that the city attorney will review the ordinance and provide a definitive answer as to where the existing ordinance specifies who pays for what. But after that is completed, the council will decide if the ordinance needs to be rewritten to identify a specific point in the lines where the city’s responsibility ends.

Fire department mutual aide agreement 

The fire chief for North Branch was in attendance; new mutual aid contracts needed to be signed to satisfy the ISO Survey Review.

The ISO is what rates individual fire departments. The better the ISO rating, the lower a homeowner’s insurance premiums.

The North Branch Fire Department has taken over the Sunrise Township area that had been the Harris department’s responsibility. The chief said the North Branch Fire Department did not solicit the change, and as soon as the department was approached, the chief called Harris Fire Chief Trevor Williams to discuss the situation.

Miller asked the North Branch chief if the residents of Sunrise were notified of the change, and that now when a call goes out, the primary responder will be North Branch Fire Department, which is farther away than Harris’ department. The chief indicated that would be a township responsibility, and that Harris is the secondary for Sunrise per the mutual aid contracts. Part of the Mutual Aid agreement is that only the primary in an area is paid for a call, not the backup or secondary departments that attend.

Building permits service 

The council listened to a presentation from Kurt Schneider, of the Chisago County Department of Environmental Services and Zoning. The department would like to take over the building permits service for the city of Harris. Currently, the department handles the permitting for Rush City, Chisago City and Center City.

There is a standard contract, and the rate is very similar to what they have been paying the past building inspector. The fees will vary, but not greatly. Whereas the city of Harris presently has a flat fee for most building permits, the department fees are based on a percentage of the value of the improvements. Schneider said the difference would be nominal.

As the other applicant to handle the building inspections had withdrawn from consideration, the council decided to contract with the department for future permitting.

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