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House subcommittee unanimous in approving folding Douglas County sewer district

ST. PAUL -- A half-dozen years of fighting appears near an end for Douglas County's Central Lakes Region Sanitary District.

A bill that got its start Monday night would disband the district after disputes over its cost and structure.

A House subcommittee unanimously approved the measure, with no one speaking against it.

"We are very happy," said Keith Baldwin, who watched the proceedings with his wife, Kate. "This has been our goal since June of '08."

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, asked the committee to make his bill only apply to Central Lakes, removing earlier plans to require sewer district board members be elected and give Central Lakes a way to reconstitute itself.

The bill faces little opposition, but it does face a Friday deadline for being passed out of House committees.

Once the disputes arose and all six townships involved in the district opted to pull out, it became obvious that state law provides no way to disband the organization. That is when Reps. Westrom and Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, took up the cause to give those running the district a way out.

Attorney John Kolb, representing the district board, said in an interview that the bill means shutting down "will be a cleaner process."

He said the district incurred costs of $3.4 million in its effort to establish a sewer district in the past six years. If the bill becomes law, it will be easier to sell some assets, such as land the district obtained, to help reduce costs townships would need to cover.

Julie Haseman, representing five of the six townships, said the bill would pave the way for townships to pay costs of closing down the entity.

Kate Baldwin, a member of one of two groups organized to oppose the plan, said a $53 million project cost was one reason it became so controversial.

Also, she added, the board was formed in a way "so they answer to no one. There is no process even for communications."

Michelle Saffel, another district opponent, briefly asked committee members to support the Westrom bill.

The matter became "a hotly contested issue," Westrom told the committee.

Westrom abandoned his original bill, which would have allowed election of sanitation district officers and given townships a way to reform the district. As the bill stands, he said, the district would be cleanly shut down.

In February the board began to close the district. That came after board members received word that area lawmakers were working on the bill.

The district would have constructed a central sewer system for the area it served.

Rural areas, in particular, often become engaged in debate between those who favor use of individual septic tanks and those who want central sewer systems.

Kolb earlier said he expected disbanding the district to take six months.