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Fairmont sells disputed land to Habitat for Humanity

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont City Council on Monday upheld a verbal agreement to sell a city-owned lot at 512 N. Elm St. to Habitat for Humanity of Faribault and Martin Counties, despite two abutting property owners expressing interest in buying the lot.

The 4-1 vote, with Wayne Hasek opposing the sale, will allow a house donated by John Thate to be moved from Lake Avenue to the site next year.

According to correspondence from Staci Thompson, executive director of the local Habitat branch, former city administrator Mike Humpal had made a verbal commitment about two years ago that the city would transfer the tax-forfeited property to Habitat, a practice the city has used before. Because the current tenants have a lease on the Lake Avenue house until May 31, 2021, ongoing negotiations with city staff yielded an agreement that the city would maintain the lot until ownership was transferred.

There were no prior comments or in-person statements made at an April 13 public hearing on the sale of the property, and the council was set to vote on the sale April 27. After the public hearing, abutting property owner Lowell Abelson of 522 N. Elm St. emailed the council expressing his interest in buying the lot to put up a garage. Instead of approving the sale to Habitat, the majority of the council voted to delay any action to see if the city had another acceptable lot for the Habitat house.

After the April 27 meeting, a second abutting property owner, Connie Sathoff of 309 E. Fifth Street, also emailed the council expressing her interest in buying the property.

Both Abelson and Sathoff spoke via telephone to the council Monday.

Abelson said he was “lied to from the very beginning” about the lot’s availability and that the negotiations with Habitat were hidden from the public.

“None of my neighbors want that other house here from Habitat, not one of them,” he said.

Sathoff told the council she hoped the property would be offered for sale, rather than given to Habitat for Humanity.

Thompson also weighed in via telephone, referring to a letter she sent to council members outlining the increase in property taxes that would be generated by having a house on the property versus a garage or leaving it vacant. She also cited the city’s recent housing study that showed the community’s lack of property for low-income ownership.

“This is an agreement we’ve had with the city for several years. We provided documentation of this agreement. We would appreciate you following through on the documented promise that was made to us two years ago,” she said.

Cathy Reynolds, city administrator, pointed out that the lot is zoned R-1, which is required by City Code to have a primary structure, such as house, before an accessory structure, like a garage, can be put on the lot. She also noted the long-standing agreement the city has had with Habitat about the house and the unavailability of any other city-owned lots large enough to accommodate the house as reasons to go ahead with transferring the property to Habitat.

Although he was not against giving the property to Habitat, Councilman Randy Lubenow voiced his concern over the way the process was handled. He said the city needed a process that was legal and consistently fair, and suggested Reynolds start working on such a policy.

“We are working on a policy,” Reynolds said. “One of our goals is to put together a policy before we deal with any additional property that we’ve obtained under this (tax-forfeiture) process. We want to get a policy in place for how we’re obtaining them, what we’re doing with them, how do we market them and how do we sell them at the end of the process.”

Councilman Bruce Peters said he was never against the sale to Habitat but was glad the council delayed the vote to investigate the availability of other lots.

Turning to another matter, the council voted to donate $8,500 to the Martin County Veterans Memorial committee to help with the Aug. 1 dedication of the Cobra helicopter at the shrine. The occasion will include a parade from Heritage Acres to the memorial on Winnebago Avenue and a dedication including military personnel who served on the Cobra and spouses, followed by a veterans resource event, stock car races and festivities at the Martin County Fairgrounds. All events are open to the public.

In other business, the council:

o Approved changing the polling place for the 2020 general election to the National Guard Armory to allow social distancing and ensure the safety of voters and judges.

o Approved a temporary liquor license for the Truman Fire Department Relief Association for Aug. 1 at the Martin County Fairgrounds for the veterans memorial celebration.

o Approved the appointment of Jim Tate to the Fairmont Airport Board and Sarah Gerhard to the Fairmont Economic Development Authority.

o Awarded Ulland Brothers Inc. of Albert Lea the low bid for the pedestrian bridge and trail extension from Margaret Street to the intersection of Highway 15 and Torgerson Drive. The bid of $808,000 was almost $45,000 less than the engineer’s estimate.

o Recognized city employees for years of service: Amy Bejarano, Michael Beletti, Tegan Quade, 10 years; James Bohlsen, Kevin Brockmann, Dean Sandberg, Shawn Schaefer, Todd Steuber, 15 years; and Michael Munsterman, 30 years.

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