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City hosts SE infrastructure project open house

Southeast Wadena resident Lisa Winter asks the engineers a question about the upcoming infrastructure project at an open house last Thursday.

Southeast Wadena residents braved the wind and snow last Thursday night to learn about a comprehensive infrastructure project planned for their neighborhood and share opinions with city leaders.

"This needs to be good for a 100 years," engineer Phil Martin told a crowd that spilled out of the council chambers into the hallway. "Take the southeast infrastructure, wipe the slate clean and plan it how you want it ... It's an opportunity as well as a challenge."

About 40 people attended the informal open house about the vast project, which is expected to cost more than $9 million and will rebuild the streets, sidewalks, water network and sewers in a couple dozen blocks on the southeast side of town. Much of the existing infrastructure is 70 to 90 years old.

Some in the crowd filled out comment cards, which city leaders said will help shape final decisions. With council direction, engineers from Bolton and Menk will finish designing the project over the next year. Construction is scheduled to start in May 2015, with the south half completed by winter and the north half in 2016.

Council member Toby Pierce said public input is crucial. "The people that live here - they're the ones that are going to have to put up with this."

Southeast residents will pay for 20 percent of most of the project through special assessments, while homeowners throughout the city will cover the rest through property taxes.

"We try to make it as fair as possible," said Brad Swenson, city administrator.

The assessments will be spread out over the lifetime of the debt.

At the meeting, no one expressed any concerns with the sewer or water network upgrades, but streets and sidewalks prompted some discussion.

Several residents pooh-poohed an engineer's proposal to consider shrinking the width of some Wadena roads.

Martin said doing so would reduce the project's cost, increase green space, reduce runoff, decrease truck traffic in residential neighborhoods and reduce speeds for all vehicles.

David Mertens attended the meeting on behalf of St. Ann's Catholic Church. He said the church opposes narrowing the roads because it would reduce on-street parking. The local realtor said it would also decrease property values.

Mertens asked the crowd whether they had ever driven on Duluth's narrow residential streets.

"Do you we want southeast Wadena to be like that?," he asked. "I don't think so. If you want to reduce the speed of traffic, set a lower speed limit and enforce it."

One resident asked the realtor if the revamped infrastructure would otherwise increase property values.

It would, Mertens said, and if they sell their house, residents should be able to negotiate passing along the special assessment burden to the buyer.

The council is considering creating a designated truck network to redirect that traffic from unsuitable residential streets. One possible plan calls for a truck loop that would extend from Jefferson Street down Dayton Avenue Southeast to Fourth Street Southeast and back to Jefferson via Aldrich Avenue Southeast.

Christian Breczinski, who owns a home on Dayton Avenue, said he literally feels the trucks as they pass.

"I'm seeing damage to my house," he said. "It's almost like an earthquake every single day in my house."

Breczinski urged the council to consider alternative truck routes or at least rebuild the road to better handle the traffic.

As they direct engineers on final design, council members will also decide whether to shrink the sidewalk network, add to it or rebuild it as is.

Resident Lucy Andrie said she would prefer more green space on her property, instead of the sidewalks, which are a burden to maintain.

"It's a penalty," she said. "It's like having community service and you didn't commit a crime."

Despite the costs, most residents interviewed at the meeting said infrastructure upgrades are needed.

"I guess I'm willing to pay for things that need to be repaired," said Lisa Winter, a southeast Wadena homeowner.