2017-04-27 / Front Page

Sewer prices hinder in Northport

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff

WILL HARPER and his business partner and girlfriend Rachael Dean, who own and run North Shore Outfitters in Northport, say high and unfair sewer rates are chasing business away. WILL HARPER and his business partner and girlfriend Rachael Dean, who own and run North Shore Outfitters in Northport, say high and unfair sewer rates are chasing business away. Some Northport business owners are crying foul at what they say is an uneven and unfair system of assessing sewer usage on their buildings.

Some buildings with apartments are charged at a higher rate than others, the classification system is confusing and homes that are rented out seasonally are not even figured into the equation, they contend.

The practice, they say, is not attracting business as it was intended to do, but flushing it away.

One business owner, in fact, pays about $1,000 per quarter for his building on the corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba formerly known as the Big Store. The building now houses a cafe, fitness center and a nine-room inn.

Business owner Will Harper has emerged as the most vocal critic. He owns North Shore Outfitters on the main drag of Northport.

“The sewer is not helping the village at all, it’s killing business,” said Harper.

“We need the sewer, absolutely,” added Mimi Heberlein, who has owned the Willowbrook Mill for a little over a year. “It’s a necessary thing for the village to move forward into the future.”

But sewer rates should be based on water usage, Heberlein said, not on an assessment of the size or configuration of buildings.

“This is highly unfair and feels like throwing a dart at a board and saying, ‘Ok — that’s what you’re going to pay.”

Bill Collins, a community supporter who has underwritten the costs of the Northport Creek Golf Course and the Village Art Building, agrees.

“My feeling is that we really need to look at the way those REUs are assessed,” Collins said. “It should be based on the amount of water used, rather than some arbitrary decision.”

The billing structure in Northport is a departure from many municipalities where water usage, which is metered, determines sewer usage, which is not metered.

Barb Von Voigtlander, administrative coordinator for the village, said 20 percent of sewer customers in the Sewer Assessment District (SAD) aren’t metered, as they have wells rather than municipal water supplied by the village. The SAD covers part of Leelanau Township.

Collins disagrees.

“That’s an excuse,” Collins said. “That’s not a reason.”

If the rates were based on water usage, Von Voigtlander said, it would be an unfair burden on those who live there year-round, as the rates would also have to be set much higher to compensate for those part-time residents.

“This way everyone shares the burden a little more equally,” Von Voigtlander said.

An uneven load

Two local antique stores, Uniquities and Pot of Gold are located around the corner from each other, one on Waukazoo and the other on Mill Street. Both have living space.

Uniquities has an upstairs apartment that is partially occupied during the summer and is assessed at 1.5 residential equivalent units (REUs).

Pot of Gold, on the other hand, is run out of a home, with the owners living there full time, and is assessed at one REU.

Von Voigtlander said the number of REUs charged depends on how the space is configured.

“Some have art galleries in living rooms so it’s not separate in any way,” Von Voigtlander said. “It would be like someone walking into your living room, only the art on the walls has price tags on it.”

That’s how the Pot of Gold store is configured, she said. Businesses that are separated from an adjoining apartment are charged 1.5 REUs. And they are charged that amount all year long, whether the apartment is rented or not.

Another store, The Boutique by Mary Kent, sells women’s clothing and accessories. An upstairs apartment is empty and has been for a long time. Even so, the building is charged 1.5 REUs.

The building is owned by Noah Alonzo, who did not return a call to the Enterprise.

According to Von Voigtlander, the Northport Leelanau Township Utilities Authority (NLTUA), is recommending a change in the REU schedule under the category of “Business with apartment, above or below” to now read “Business with apartment.”

The REU schedule, which is a part of the Sewer Ordinance No. 96, will remain the same, she said.

The recommended change will be up for approval by the Northport Village Council at its next meeting May 4.

The high cost of doing business.

Erik Owen pulled up stakes and left town after his business, the Northport Inn, was changed from being charged as a ‘bed and breakfast’ to being classified as a ‘hotel,’ which greatly increased the sewer bill for the nine-room inn.

Hotels are charged at .5 REU per room, while bed and breakfasts are charged at .1 REU per room.

Owen, who owned the building with business partner Bob Bingenheimer, appealed the NLTUA decision.

“They just laughed at me and said, ‘Everyone can see it’s a hotel,’ and unanimously denied the appeal,” Owen said. “It’s mind boggling. It’s not about being fair, it’s about paying for a sewer that was overbuilt. They should be giving business owners a break on REUs so they will come and stay and flourish.”

The high cost made it impossible for him to make a profit with the inn, which must make the lion’s share of its money during the short tourist season, he said.

Owen and his wife Deirdre are now running a bed and breakfast in Florida.

“It doesn’t have any sewer issues,” he said.

Harper runs his store with Rachael Dean, his business partner and girlfriend. In November the business, which has a small apartment in the back, was increased from one REU for his building to 1.5, a change that would have cost him an additional $8,794.61 in a one-time capacity fee and another $91.50 every three months in usage fees.

Harper bought the store in 2014 and he and Dean lived in the apartment that first year. They later moved into a house he owns on Mill Street and rented the apartment to friends, who lived there for about a year.

One end of the apartment, which is not currently rented, has a large room that Harper uses as his office, and the kitchen is being used as a lunchroom for employees.

The store/apartment combo has always been assessed one REU. So Harper was a little surprised — and a lot angry — when he got a letter in November from Northport Clerk Joni Scott, who is also the secretary for NLTUA.

The letter informed Harper that the authority had completed its annual audit of the capacity usage of parcels connected to the wastewater treatment system and increased the REUs on his business parcel to 1.5.

“We were shocked,” Harper said. “We had no idea. There were no additional people living here. Two people moved out and two people moved in, so why the increase?”

The letter was rescinded in January and a new one sent that called his building a “Single Family Residence Modified,” with billing still set at 1.5 REUs.

Harper says the building was never a home.

Harper appealed the increase to NLTUA and lost, though he will be assessed at one REU as he says he is now living at least part-time in the apartment.

Scott told the Enterprise that the apartment is now being classified as “storage” and is not being charged additional sewer fees.

Harper was seeking relief from fees, but also was asking for the sewer authority to allow those who rent rooms for workforce housing to do so at no extra cost.

Mike Sinclair, a retired law professor who has been a full-time resident of Northport for about five years, has called for assessing all businesses with a one- or two-bedroom apartment at one REU.

That would create affordable living space for seasonal workers without burdening business owners with additional expenses.

The proposal encourages small business and distributes sewer costs fairly and equitably, Sinclair said. He has submitted the proposal to the Northport Village Council.

Stores with small apartments do not generate any more sewage than other houses, he said.

“So charging it at 1.5 REUs is kind of arbitrary,” Sinclair said. “You do it because you can.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct total paid per quarter by the business owner mentioned in the beginning of the story.

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