Due to an action by the North Branch City council Aug. 22, some residents in town could now have up to 15 years to hook up to city sewer.
By a 3-1 vote (Mayor Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy was absent for the meeting), the council approved the repeal and replacement of an ordinance regarding connection to municipal utilities for homes within the city’s newly updated urban service area.
This matter had been tabled from the previous council meeting, as three of the body’s members — Kelly Neider, Robert Canada and Jim Swenson — wanted more time to research the issue prior to voting on it.
North Branch City Administrator Renae Fry thoroughly explained what the repeal and replacement of the ordinance means for the people of North Branch.
She repeatedly stressed it is not in the city’s plans to build out utility lines in already existing neighborhoods.
“This is not a case where individual properties that exist today that might possibly be near a force main or other major infrastructure are being required to hook up,” she said. “We’re really talking about the expansion of sewer into new areas or the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods.”
She said an aspect of the ordinance update that staff struggled with is what it means to have utility lines “available” to hook up to city sewer.
“Running a force main down a street is not a structure that an individual resident can hook up to. … Staff wanted to be certain that this hookup concern is only triggered when those lateral lines are installed in connection with a particular project to which an individual property could actually hook up to,” she said. “So in the case of an apartment building, if we’re taking a force main with a lateral directly to that site where there’s no means for any of the area properties nearby to hook into, that sewer is not available for those residents to hook up to, and therefore the requirements are not triggered.”
The main language change that occurred with the ordinance dealt with the timeframe in which people had to hook up to city services, if they were deemed available in their area and their dwelling had its own well and septic.
Under the previous ordinance, a homeowner who lived close enough to existing utilities could have had a very short timeframe to connect.
“(The homeowner) shall be required at the owner(s) expense to install suitable connection to the public sewer in accordance with the provisions of this division, within 90 days of the date the public sewer is operational, provided access to the public sewer is within 100 feet of the structure generating the wastewater, if required to preserve health, safety and welfare of the occupants or environment,” the previous ordinance read. “If no threat to health, safety or welfare exists, and the existing septic system is in full compliance with city, county and state code, then the property owner will not be required to connect to the municipal sanitary sewer system.”
Fry noted there wasn’t a standard to determine if a septic system was operating correctly under the former ordinance, so as part of the new ordinance, residents who live in a home that could be hooked up are required to have their septic systems inspected every three years to obtain a certificate of compliance to prove they’re in working order.
If a septic system is in working order, a homeowner could get five certificates of compliance, meaning they’d have up to 15 years to connect to city services.
The cost of those obtaining those certificates could range from $250 to $335, Fry noted. She also explained that an inspection cannot be done unless a septic system is pumped. Building official Rich Meyer said after two industry professionals have done soil borings to determine the quality of the soil in a given area, future inspections would cost less, because that aspect of them would no longer be required.
“Having the 15 years provides you the most options of any policy I’ve ever seen,” City Engineer Lee Gustafson said. “The 90 days is pretty common. If you get to other cities, you have two years to hook up, period, and that’s it. To have this type of flexibility for the residents of North Branch, frankly, is almost unheard of. I think you’re providing a very good situation for each and every property owner to make individual decisions as to whether they want to hook up or not.”
Due to water services being controlled by North Branch Water and Light, which is a separate entity from the city, a connection to that utility would differ from sewer.
“The ordinance was written to cover sewer and water to the extent that water is also available for a particular development,” Fry wrote in an email. “As separate entities, however, we do not govern Water and Light’s practices and it would be up to Water and Light to indicate what evidence they would consider appropriate to demonstrate that the existing well was not contaminated. Our ordinance does indicate that the city would allow a property owner to continue to use their well once hooked up to municipal water, but only for non-potable purposes, such as watering their lawn.”
Council, resident comments
Four residents spoke at the meeting; all were concerned about the ordinance update.
“I’ve been very upset about what you’ve been pulling the last couple of months,” Nancy Zacherson said to the council. “You make decisions for all the people in North Branch, not just 50 percent of the population.”
Resident Don Swanson had a few questions for the council.
“When is the proposed date that sewer and water is going to come down 400th Street?” he asked. “We don’t know if it’s 10 years or 20 years.”
Council member Robert Canada, who voted against the ordinance update, has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the change and said he wanted more opinions on it.
“I would defer this to the new planning commission,” he said. “I have yet to see input on the positive nature come to us or staff.”
Council member Jim Swenson said the council is updating an ordinance that has been on the books since 1996 and needed to be changed to reflect the city’s current situation.
“It is not the intent of staff or council to prohibit people from having their own wells and septic systems,” he said. “We just need to upgrade and change our ordinances because some of these ordinances have been on the books for many, many years and we need to bring things up so when we do get developers and other people coming into the community they know this is what we have.”