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I-90 annexation still waits for city action (04/14/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Part two in a series on the city of Winona's dream to nearly double its population and develop the valleys and fields to its south. Keep reading the Winona Post as we continue to explore the issue of annexation and the future of our community.

Will the city of Winona extend its borders to Interstate 90 (I-90) in the coming years? Mayor Mark Peterson and City Manager Judy Bodway say southern expansion is a goal, and developers say a 2009 request asking the city to annex land on I-90 and Highway 43 interchange is still on the table. City plans call for annexing hundreds of acres of Wilson Township for residential, commercial, and industrial use and spending $58 million on utility extensions to serve the area.

Within its Comprehensive Plan, the island city's Ultimate Growth Plan envisions housing and retail developments spreading south through the valleys of Wilson Township toward a commercial and industrial park on the fields abutting the I-90 and Highway 43 interchange. The document visualizes full residential developments swelling the total city population to 52,000. The Minnesota Demographics Center's most distant projections forecast a Winona city population of 27,704 in 2035, a Wilson Township population of 1,065, and a total Winona County population of 51,160.

City Manager Judy Bodway said the Ultimate Growth Plan still reflects the city's goals and that annexing those areas is a possibility, if property owners are interested in annexation.

The city had such a land owner three years ago, and, apparently, still does. The Winona Area Industrial Development Association (WAIDA) requested annexation in 2009 of over 200 acres of property it owns near the interchange, and lobbied the city, arguing that Winona would miss out on new jobs if companies were not given a place to grow. City Council directed staff to study the concept and solicited proposals for the necessary environmental studies. Staff estimated that extending sewer and water service to the interchange would cost $10.8 million and the environmental study would cost $125,000. Proposals for the studies were received, but the city never acted on them. The City Council decided to wait to make a deal with Wilson Township before paying for an environmental study and even suggested that the township help pay for the study, but never made a deal and never responded to the annexation request.

City Planner Mark Moeller said the project got "sidetracked" and City Manager Judy Bodway said the request was never acted on because WAIDA's interest in annexation "declined a while ago."

WAIDA has a different interpretation of what happened. "We never took anything off the table," WAIDA President John Eddy said. "The city made a decision not to make a decision."

The City Council has not discussed this request in years. It is unclear who made the decision to postpone the issue.

The prolonged stagnation of business that followed the 2008 financial crisis may have made WAIDA's spurs less pointed for the city. "The timing wasn't great," as Eddy puts it.

Then and now, going forward with annexation would have huge costs. Whether to make that $10.8 million expenditure to extend sewer and water service or not "is not an easy decision for any municipality to make," Eddy said, "especially in our area, where annexation has been controversial in the past. There is a history here, and so that decision is one the city isn't going to take that lightly, nor should they."

That controversial history of recent Winona annexations includes a contentious agreement between Wilson Township and the city, $2.6 million in city spending to bring sewer and water pipes to a largely vacant subdivision and 21 existing properties, and an unknown price tag likely to be in the seven digits for sewer and water work still ahead for the existing annexation agreement.

Whether public coffers will see a return on that investment is unclear. One Wilson Township supervisor said of the city's recent annexation, "I think they have bitten off a chunk that they are yet to digest."

Visit the Winona Post archives at www.winonapost.com for more information on past annexation. The most recent update is available at http://tinyurl.com/cqcewgv.

An unlikely partnership?

A prickly history stretches back between WAIDA and its neighbors in Wilson Township. In a 2009 publication explaining their annexation request, WAIDA wrote that, "despite eight years of conversations" with Wilson Township about developing the WAIDA property, "little progress has been made." The township clearly could not provide water and waste treatment, WAIDA continued, and had failed to create predictable and reasonable rules for development.

For its part, Wilson Township balked at the idea of smokestacks next to its rural "hamlet." Residents were concerned that industrial wastewater would contaminate groundwaterócounty surveys rate the area as "highly susceptible" to pollution. Perhaps most of all, the township, which has long identified itself as a farming community, struggled with the idea of beginning to give up rich farm land for industrial development.

Despite that past, Wilson Township and WAIDA now say they are working together. The township allowed for 12 acres of the property's 100 developable acres to be opened up for light industrial use and are working on a Land Development Ordinance that will govern how the other 88 acres, and the entire township, could be developed.

Wilson Township's seeming change of heart may be because of a realization that its best bet for fighting city annexation is to please property owners and developers. That is essentially the advice Attorney Peter Tiede gave the township board in 2010. Townships almost always lose annexation disputes in court, but "if you create happy landowners, that's a strong ally," he said.

WAIDA says it is very happy to have 12 acres on the market, though it wants more. Additionally, WAIDA wants to be "under a regulatory overlay that is predictable and reasonable." When asked if certain restrictions on aesthetic appearance or the use of hazardous chemicalsóconsiderations mentioned in Wilson's Comprehensive Planówould be unreasonable, Eddy said he could not say. He did say, though, that WAIDA would like to see a definite timeline for permitting and rules that do not impose hefty costs, and that WAIDA has communicated its stance at township meetings.

Township officials said that the development ordinance should be ready this summer. Eddy said that WAIDA will wait and see whether Wilson will be a promising home. In any case, WAIDA is neither committing to the city nor the township. Development could happen either way, Eddy said.

"What the city of Winona brings that is attractive is infrastructure, and by that I mean sewer and water," Eddy said. "So the city of Winona is attractive, but as we have told Wilson, it is not mandatory because there are plenty of businesses that do not require city-supplied waste treatment or city-supplied water."

Those businesses or operations include distribution and storage facilities, but, generally-speaking, manufacturing plants need sewer and water. Manufacturing is a cornerstone of Winona's economy, and existing manufacturing facilities may be the operations most in need of a roomy new location as they grow. Many current Winona manufacturing facilities are landlocked and can only expand their walls so far, as Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt pointed out.

Eddy said that there will eventually be a need for new industrial land with city services, and that annexation at some point or another is part of a healthy economic future for Winona.

So Wilson residents who wish to preserve the status quo of their community are faced with a Catch-22. Even if they satisfy development interests, annexation is a constant possibility, but if they do not step up to provide for developers before the city does, there may not be much left of their township. 

 

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