Baldwin, Princeton committee forge new annexation policy

Baldwin Township chairperson Jay Swanson shakes hands with Princeton Mayor Jeremy Riddle, and Baldwin Supervisor Tom Rush does the same with Princeton City Council member Thom Walker after the four had come to a tentative agreement on annexation for the two government units on Wednesday evening last week.

Representatives of Baldwin Township and the city of Princeton have reached an agreement on a framework for any future annexations.

The two jurisdictions have been grappling with annexation for years in which many in Baldwin have worried about how annexations into the city of Princeton would affect Baldwin residents. The agreement was achieved during a committee type meeting the evening of May 9 in the Baldwin Town Hall.

It was a new attempt in a long line of efforts to reach some consensus on annexation, an agreement that would still need approval by the full city council and full township board and then be made into a document to be binding.

Mayor Jeremy Riddle and city council member Thom Walker represented the city, and Baldwin Board chairman Jay Swanson and fellow Baldwin Supervisor Tom Rush represented Baldwin at the May 9 meeting.

The terms of the agreement are:

1. That the city would not force anyone in Baldwin Township to be annexed into the city.

2. That the two sides will set up a schedule for rates for how Baldwin would be reimbursed for lost property taxes due to annexation.

3. If the city adheres to the above two items, then Baldwin would not oppose someone in Baldwin petitioning to be annexed into the city.

The committees reached the consensus in under 54 minutes, with Walker, toward the end, suggesting that Swanson could send the terms to the rest of his fellow board members to get feedback. Swanson said he could send out the information but that any discussion would have to take place at a full board meeting.

The audience at the meeting was sparce, consisting of  township residents Elaine Philippi, Chuck Nagle and Bonnie Zurek, besides a Union-Eagle reporter.

If both boards agree to the terms worked out in this meeting, it may be looked upon as somewhat historic since it has taken so long to reach this point. Misunderstandings and the involvement of attorneys have been cited as contributing to breakdowns in annexation-policy talks in the past.

Mayor Riddle, during the May 9 meeting, pushed for drafting an annexation document that would be simple. It should be written, he said, so the average resident could understand it without consulting an attorney.

As the discussion continued, Riddle expressed what many have said about the lack of reaching an agreement for so long a time, stating, “I want to see progress for once… and get a little traction.”

Riddle suggested that with a simple framework, the two jurisdictions could always add other policy items later.

Swanson made it clear that the agreement cannot prohibit anyone from talking with a property owner in Baldwin about their request to be annexed. Also, the agreement can’t bind any citizens in Baldwin from voicing opposition to any annexation proposals, Swanson said.

Neither Riddle nor Walker disagreed.

Swanson spoke in favor of seeing Baldwin and city officials getting along better over annexation issues. The two sides can have an “open dialogue to move forward,” and “don’t need to be at each other’s throats all the time,” he said.


Candid comments

The talks appeared to be candid, with Swanson from the start laying out his concerns. He noted how the city once had a comprehensive plan that showed the city’s southern boundary lying as far south in Baldwin as Sherburne County Road 9, about four miles south of the present city border. Swanson also noted that the city later redid those lines so that the potential southern border would lie along the axis of Sherburne County Road 38, located about two miles south of the city.

“So what are you thinking, what are you looking at at this point?” Swanson asked Riddle and Walker at the start of the discussion.

Riddle responded by saying that he has been thinking a lot about the strong reaction Baldwin officials had in early 2011 to the Princeton council at that time placing as its top priority project for the year – the reaching of an orderly annexation agreement with Baldwin.

When Baldwin supervisors read that in the newspaper, “you guys went, ‘Holy cow, what’s this?’” Riddle said. “And what I said to you at that point, it was not something that we were putting as a high priority.”

Instead, Riddle said, it was a case of orderly annexation having been on a previous list of the city’s priorities, and it was the only one on the old list that hadn’t yet been taken care of.

Walker said the city already has an annexation policy in which it only entertains annexation proposals through petition. But maybe the policy could be written more clearly and more straightforward, Walker suggested.

Swanson agreed that state statutes determine a lot on how annexation occurs. “The truth is, as it stands, if someone approaches you to be annexed into the city, there’s really not a whole lot that the township can do about it,” Swanson said. “That’s reality. We need to embrace that, because that’s the way it is. We, as a township, can try to talk them out of it and do all these things, but if they have the desire to do so, there’s not a whole lot the township can do.”

A sore spot with some Baldwin officials that Swanson brought up was the case of local developer/contractor Roger Winkelman having a parcel he owns that contains the ABRA Auto Body & Glass building that was annexed into the city about four years ago. He later asked the city council if he could detach it, meaning have it go back into Baldwin Township.

When Winkelman asked for the detachment in October 2009, the council discouraged Winkelman from proceeding and so far, the parcel remains in the city. As part of the annexation agreement, the city is rebating back the majority of city property taxes on the parcel for 10 years. The amount is the lesser of either $38,000 over the 10 years or 75 percent of the normal city property taxes for that parcel, according to city treasurer Steve Jackson.

Swanson made it clear he didn’t like how that parcel was annexed, noting that it sits close to the end of a spike of land that juts into Baldwin from the city’s southern border. The stretch was former railroad land.

Riddle explained that a businessman wanted to start a business in the building on that lot and had talked to Winkelman about the annexation idea. The businessman had reasoned that by having his business in the city, he could receive a grant from the Initiative Foundation for the business, Riddle said. But the businessman ended up having a stroke, Riddle noted, and the business never did start up.

Riddle acknowledged that Princeton city officials did talk to the businessman about being in city limits to get the grant, but that it was Winkelman who petitioned the city to have it annexed.

Walker cautioned that the agreement would also not mean city officials would never contact anyone about annexation. But the city is still “not going to force anyone to do anything,” Walker added. “We haven’t in the past and don’t plan to in the future.”

Riddle, in response to Swanson’s concerns about the city’s comprehensive plan showing potential outward city development into Baldwin, said this: Cities are required by law to have a comprehensive plan and it must include a “contingency for growth and planning.” Princeton moved its southern growth line back to County Road 38 because having it at County Road 9 did not seem reasonable, Riddle added. Also, if there is annexation, Baldwin should be reimbursed for lost taxes, Riddle said, saying it is better than having the two sides spending on attorneys.

Swanson and Rush also talked about the idea of negotiating the city costs for development permits once annexed, but no agreement was reached on that.

“We’re trying to soften the blow to the property owner wanting to be part of the city,” Rush said.

Walker commented that people who petition to be annexed do it for a reason and not just to change boundary lines. If Baldwin wants to keep most of its township rural, then dense development should be “all in one spot,” Walker added, in defense of the city annexing an area that could have density with hookups to city sewer and water.

The two sides did disagree on how long an orderly annexation agreement should be. Swanson suggested something as long as 30 years so that Baldwin can better plan. “You’ll be busy with Walmart and we’ll be busy down here,” Swanson said about the current construction of a Walmart store in Princeton and the potential new development that the store could spur.

Walker said he wouldn’t be in favor of an agreement being longer than 10 years.

Swanson commented that the agreement doesn’t set out potential city boundary lines but that it does answer some of his “fears” about annexation.

Once getting something basic on paper for both sides to go by, they can later discuss adding other points, Riddle suggested. Riddle also suggested that Baldwin has to have some “trust” in what the city officials are saying about their annexation policy.

Swanson commented that whenever annexation takes place, it affects both Baldwin and the city and therefore he hopes city planning is done with both the city and Baldwin in mind.

One point that Swanson stressed, was that his main concern is for the residents of Baldwin and that he did not want to see any of them forced against their will into the city.