2017-06-15 / Views

Northport starts to address sewer inequities

It’s somewhat of an American tradition that if you can’t stop them, try charging them.

That’s one interpretation of a proposal brought by a group of Northport Village citizens including many business owners who signed a petition that would affect short-term rentals in the village.

But far from a repressive response to a growing sector of the Leelanau County economy, their suggestion makes sense. In a nutshell, sewer payments for residential shortterm rental homes in the village would increase, while fees imposed on one-unit apartments — the ones often found over or behind businesses in the downtown district — would decrease.

Unfortunately, village officials appear leery of all residents who bring to light concerns about the over-built municipal sewer system. They’ve been slow to embrace changes in the village sewer fee schedule.

Hopefully that changed at the last Village Council meeting when the proposal made limited progress.

One proponent for change is Will Harper, who lost a brush with the Northport Leelanau Township Utilities Authority over how much his commercial building should be assessed after he was found to be living in it. Still, Mr. Harper’s arguments cut through the inequities built into a fee structure based on the type of use associated with a building rather than how much waste was produced from the building.

Years ago a decision was made to base fees on the type of use rather than on actual use as shown by meters, even though most buildings were already hooked up to water meters.

Mr. Harper made the village fee schedule appear arbitrary, pointing fingers and naming names of property owners who are paying either less or more than can be justified.

The point that drew our attention, however, was the comparison between how much a business might pay in sewer fees to offer an employee a second floor apartment compared to how much the owner of a residential property rented on a weekly basis would pay toward sewer use.

Weekly rentals represent an important business on the Leelanau Peninsula. In Northport Village, weekly rentals of inland homes often go for more than $2,000. We viewed one listing of a beautiful home on the water that topped $3,700 for a week’s stay.

And yet that home was assessed at the same sewer rate as a small home owned by an older couple who splits for Florida every winter.

The village should be encouraging year-round apartment rental as a step toward addressing a shortage in affordable housing, while assessing a higher fee on what amounts to profitable businesses that are run like small hotels.

To be clear, short-term rentals are not bad for Leelanau County and its shortage of lodging establishments. We are saying that if sewer fees aren’t based on usage, they could be influenced by community needs.

Proponents of such a change have been fighting an uphill struggle, but just might be winning. Village officials at first suggested that it was NLTUA that controlled the fee schedule — even though the schedule is based on a village ordinance — and then suggested that such a change might be too costly.

Given the number of short-term rentals in the village, that hardly seems likely.

Then Village Coordinator Barb Von Voigtlander and Clerk Joni Scott stormed out a committee meeting called to address the proposals, which were backed by a 2-1 vote. Minutes written by Village President Phil Mikesell — recall that Ms. Scott, who was there to record minutes, opted to leave — originally stated that proposed changes to the REU schedule were “not supported and the meeting adjourned without further action.” In reality, Mr. Mikesell had cast the only “no” vote. The minutes were eventually corrected.

There are financial shortfalls with the over-built municipal sewer in Northport that eventually will need to be addressed. A more detailed look at the fee schedule just might represent a start of a long-overdue conversation — if people will stay in the same room that long.

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