Council green-lights new street assessment plan

Property owners to pay less for reconstructions than under former model

Clint Riese
News Editor

The second phase in a two-step plan won City Council approval last week, and Forest Lake’s new street improvement system is now up and running.

The council on July 22 approved an assessment policy for public streets. The five-page document outlines new rates that will be owed by those owning property along streets to be improved. This policy follows a franchise fee approved in December that generates approximately $700,000 per year for street work.

Under the former policy, affected property owners footed 70 percent of the total bill. For a 100-foot lot, the average assessment cost $22,400. The city shied away from heaping that burden on residents, thus street reconstructions essentially stopped.

The new policy, combined with revenue from the franchise fee, allows the city to march forward with road improvements as necessary. Home and business owners will be assessed 20 percent for work on existing surfaced streets. The city will pick up the remainder of the tab.

“This is really the final step in implementing the Streets Task Force’s recommendation,” City Administrator Aaron Parrish said this week. “They wanted to have an approach that didn’t rely on large, one-time assessments. This sets the foundation for a street replacement program that can better meet the infrastructure needs in the future.”

The entire cost of the construction of new streets will be assessed to the benefiting properties.

Likewise, residents and businesses along gravel roads will be assessed 100 percent of costs for initial pavement construction. Thirty of the 100 miles of roads in the city’s system are gravel.

Another 20 percent are eligible for state aid and would not be affected by the assessment policy. The city receives about $750,000 a year for improvements on those roads.

The city improves many roads on a more short-term basis through annual mill and overlay and sealcoat projects. Newly constructed or reconstructed streets have a life expectancy of 20 years. A task force found that Forest Lake would need to spend $1.7 million a year to maintain its entire system on a 100-year cycle.

Street improvements are usually approved by the council on the recommendation of staff, but residents can also petition the city for improvements. A petition must be signed by owners representing at least 51 percent of the frontage bordering the proposed improvement. Such a request requires a simple majority vote from the council. Improvements not stemming from petition must be approved by four of the council’s five members.

The 20 percent assessment for existing streets represents the minimum amount required by state law to fund the work with bonds.

Most residents pay $7 per month for street improvements through the franchise fee on their electric and gas bills.

The assessment policy passed on a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Susan Young dissenting. At the council’s July workshop, she proposed a 50 percent assessment for residential streets.

Lake updates

The July 22 council meeting also included annual updates from the local lake associations.

Forest Lake Lake Association President Stev Stegner gained the council’s attention by explaining how the association is in the preliminary stages of developing a “rapid response” system to prepare for a possible infestation of zebra mussels. The group wants to have funds set aside that would allow an infected area of the lake to be quarantined and treated as soon as the invasive species is identified.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had zebra mussels in our lake, but certainly it’s going to change the way we all use our lake,” Stegner said. “It’s amazing: They can lay from 30,000 to 1 million eggs a year and they multiply very rapidly in the lake. What happens is they do damage to boats and boat motors by clogging them up.”

The goal is for the response to never be needed. The FLLA partnered with the city, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Forest Lake Comfort Lake Watershed District to obtain a grant that is funding inspections at the lake’s public access. The inspections aim not only for prevention, but for education, Stegner said.

The FLLA’s battle against the invasive species curly-leaf pondweed is going well, Stegner said. Herbicide treated 155 acres over all three basins in 2012. This year, treatment was needed on only 60 acres.

“It’s really taken a dive,” Stegner said.

Meanwhile, the weed harvesting program continues to remove 400 tons per year. Stegner expressed appreciation for the city’s annual commitment of $26,000 to help with these efforts.

Clear Lake Association President Doug Ramseth also brought good news. His association is battling Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive species that infected the lake in 2006.

Legislators including former state Sen. Ray Vandeveer in 2012 helped the association obtain a variance to treat more acres than allowed. The effort paid off, as this year’s treatment is down to 54 acres, from 71.

“We’ve had excellent success this year,” Ramseth said. “It’s been a real joy to see the lake rid of some of these noxious weeds and people able to use it.”

Ramseth touted the group’s high participation rate and commitment, noting members have paid more than $87,000 since 2009 to fight invasive and nuisance species.

Besides partnering with the Rice Creek Watershed District and the DNR for water quality testing and improvement, the association in 2011 partnered with a commercial fisherman to remove 80,000 pounds of rough fish from the lake.

The city has provided $5,000 to the association in most recent years.