by CHRIS ROGERS
Wilson Township officials and Winona city staff have been quietly working this year on a new annexation agreement that would allow landowners on the edge of Winona, in some situations, to join the city. A recent proposal to annex Pleasant Valley land for the development of a 36-unit senior-living complex may be put on hold while the two governments negotiate a broader deal.
Wilson Township is the rural township directly south of Winona, encompassing Pleasant Valley, West and East Burns Valley, the Interstate-90/Highway 43 interchange, and ridgetop farmlands in between. In the 2000s, Winona city leaders had big dreams to annex most of Wilson Township and extend city limits all the way to I-90. After a contentious battle with the township, and under a 2005 Orderly Annexation Agreement (OAA), the city did expand, paying to extend water and sewer pipes far into the township and annexing new subdivisions. However, the 2008 housing market crash put a damper on Winona’s ambitions as subdivisions sat empty. When the 2005 OAA expired in 2015, the Winona City Council tried to renew it so streamlined annexations could continue. The Wilson Township Board, however, felt the old OAA was a bad deal for the township that made it too easy for the city to take over rural land and eat away at the township’s tax base. The Town Board let the OAA expire, opting to have no deal spelling out annexation procedures with the city.
Instead, the city and township have been taking annexation requests one at a time. It has been working out fairly well, Town Board Chair Leon Bowman said. Most of the properties that seek to annex to the city have failing septic tanks and are adjacent to city water and sewer lines. As much as the township hates to lose taxpayers, in those instances, township leaders don’t object to homeowners joining Winona and hooking up to city sewer service. There is an understanding between city and township officials about that, Bowman said, adding that he feels a decent amount of trust in the current city administration.
Sometime this year or last year, township leaders decided maybe they should consider formalizing that understanding in a new annexation agreement after all. “We really should have something in writing because administrations come and go,” Bowman stated.
So representatives for the two governments have been talking and discussing a possible new OAA that would govern where and how urban growth could occur. That deal is still being developed and Bowman and current Winona City Administrator Steve Sarvi declined to describe it in detail. However, the two leaders both said it would cover a smaller area than the 2005 OAA, which allowed annexations deep into the township. “Basically it’s going to cover the periphery of the township that borders the city,” Bowman said. He added that there are still some sticking points about how far south in Pleasant Valley it should extend. Bowman described the deal as limiting annexations to properties with failing septic systems that are near city sewer service.
For his part, Sarvi has been more skeptical than past city leaders about the cost effectiveness of spending millions to expand sewer and water lines far from current city limits. “I think we’re still, as a city, looking for how we can fill the majority of our needs within the existing city and where we have existing utilities out towards the edge of the city,” he said. “I don’t think any parties want to see utilities just being thrown out in the cornfields,” he added. “That wouldn’t be prudent for the city and it wouldn’t be good for the township either.” At the same time, he continued, “I think in fairness, there needs to be some greenfield expansion.”
Sarvi said that a draft agreement might be ready for the City Council and Town Board to review in early 2020. “If we can find some mutually acceptable language for both parties, I think we can get a deal. If we can’t, I think we’re going to work closely and maybe something can come together down the line,” he stated.
A deal would spell out the procedure for annexations, but the city could still annex some land without any deal.
In the meantime a development company has been trying to get nine acres of rural land on the edge of city limits annexed so it can build a 36-unit cooperative senior housing development dubbed Cedar Brook Cooperative. Earlier this fall, the City Council directed city staff to ask Wilson Township if it would agree to that property joining the city. In an interview, Bowman said he would not support such a move while the city and the township are still negotiating a larger deal. Sarvi said city staff left it up to the developer to request annexation from Wilson Township. If the township opposes it, the city could still annex the land over Wilson Township’s objections, but Sarvi said he wouldn’t recommend that. “My response was, I don’t see why the city would want to go to war over a nine-acre parcel. We want to make sure this is a positive negotiation because there’s broader implications,” he stated. The City Council could make a different decision, Sarvi noted.
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