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Paynesville Press - February 6, 2002

Township approves land acquisition for new airport

By Peter and Michael Jacobson

Despite strong vocal opposition from members of a crowd of 50 township residents, the Paynesville Township Board of Supervisors approved resolutions giving the Paynesville Regional Airport Commission the authority to acquire land - including through the use of eminent domain - by a 2-1 vote at the township meeting on Monday, Jan. 28.

Before the airport discussion even turned to the resolutions at hand at the township meeting last week, supervisor John Atwood restated his objections to the township's creation of an airport fund.

The board voted 2-1 in December to transfer $200,000 -Ęthe township's portion of the new airport construction - to an airport fund, with Atwood voting against it and arguing that the action violated state law. Last week, he renewed his objection to the fund transfer and twice made a motion to end the township's involvement with the new airport project, also citing the effect of the new airport's zoning restrictions on the school district. His motion died both times for the lack of a second.

When the vote was finally taken on the resolutions, which gives the airport commission the authority either to purchase nine parcels, totaling 195 acres, for the proposed new airport by direct purchase, using the fair market value set by an independent appraiser, or by eminent domain (condemnation), if needed, Atwood voted against and supervisors Warren Nehring and Don Pietsch voting in support.

The Paynesville City Council had previously passed the resolutions at their meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 23, by a vote of 3-1. Council members Dave Peschong, Jean Soine, and Dennis Zimmerman voted for them and council member Harlan Beek voted against it. (The city had an effective margin of 4-1 due to the support of mayor Jeff Thompson, whose vote would count to break a tie among the council.)

Since all the land that needs to be purchased for the proposed airport is in the township, several affected landowners attended the township board meeting last week.

Complaint from the public at the township meeting focused on what residents felt was a rush to move forward with the project and the state of land negotiations so far.

Steve Whitcomb, chairman of the Paynesville Regional Airport Commission, described the steps so far: an independent appraisal, which was revised to include some recent land purchases around the city of Paynesville. That revised appraisal is the basis of the current offers to landowners.

Since the Aeronautics Division of the Minnesota Department of Transportation is paying for 60 percent of the costs for land acquisition, he said later, the commission has to follow the state laws that require using the land appraisals as a basis for any land purchases. Landowners have the right to a second appraisal, and the use of eminent domain remains a last resort, he stressed.

Landowner Dennis Rothstein said the $500 that could be paid towards a second appraisal doesn't come close to covering the total cost, which could be $2,000 or more.

Jason Mages, another affected landowner, confirmed the misleading use of the term negotiations for dealings so far. He said he has only received offers, and has not been able to do any negotiating.

The landowners, added Rothstein, have not been asked at what price they would settle.

But because of MnDOT regulations, the commission can only offer a certain percentage above a certified appraisal.

Atwood relayed a message from another landowner, who told Atwood he would fight the project to the end, which could make condemnation procedures necessary if the project is to continue.

Condemnation proceedings might be the only way for landowners to ask for a price under the process mandated by MnDOT.

Pietsch briefly explained the process at the township meeting last week. A judge would set up a three-member panel of realtors and assessors to hear both sides arguments for their price and then decide which was justified. Both sides could appeal the decision.

"My five-year-old knows better than to take," protested township resident Dave Pelkey to the use of eminent domain. "You're taking from these landowners."

Calls from township residents for delaying the decision, and thus the project, were trumped by the desire to get the project to construction, something the airport commission hopes to do in the coming construction season.

In light of the number of people opposing the project at the meeting, township resident Jan Nistler wondered where the support for the project was. "Where are your people?" she asked.

Nehring responded that people in support don't normally come.

Before the voting, Pietsch and Whitcomb gave some history to the township's involvement in the airport project. An ad hoc committee was formed in 1996, said Whitcomb. The township participated in the study and then in pursuing it.

The joint powers agreement was passed as a companion to the orderly annexation agreement, which compensates the township for land annexed to the city, added Pietsch.

Originally, the city and the township were to split the local share of construction, which was estimated at $400,000 total, or $200,000 apiece. Now, though, the local share is estimated at $721,000, and a revised agreement has limited the township's share to $200,000. That leaves the city responsible for the rest, a point that didn't sit well with Beek, who also attended the township meeting.

(Both the city and the township have planned to use reserve funds to pay for their portion of the airport project.)

Nehring, who is up for re-election in March, agreed on the importance of airport agreement to the relationship between the city and township. He made the motion to approve resolution, seconded by Pietsch.

Township candidate Pat Meagher stated his opposition to the airport project as a mistake for the school and the community.

Ed McIntee, another township candidate, said the township should wait to act on the resolutions until April.

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