School board opposes airport zoning

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/21/01.

One of the shortest items at the public hearing for the new airport zoning could loom the largest over the airport's future.

The meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, was the second required hearing before the airport zoning board can enact a zoning ordinance for the proposed new airport. A new airport has been planned for an area slightly to the west of the present site.

The problem is the restrictions the zoning hearing would place on the school, which owns the land across Highway 23 from the end of the runway.

High school principal John Janotta read a letter from superintendent Howard Caldwell at the hearing that expressed the school's concerns about the loss of building rights on the southern portion of the school's land.

At the same time, the school board was holding its bi-monthly meeting, and unanimously passed a motion opposing the zoning, saying: "That the Paynesville School Board absolutely objects to the zoning change to accommodate an airport, which effectively cancels any opportunity for future school expansion."

The most restrictive zoning requirements for the new airport are Zones A and B, just off the end of the runway. Both zones prohibit places of public assembly, and schools specifically.

The zones touch the southern corner of the school's property, an area which currently has the agriculture plots, the junior high softball field, and the driving range. The school owns the driving range and has leased it to the golf course.

While the school has no immediate plans for using this area, the long-term plan would be to build an elementary school on the south side of the middle school parking lot. Enough land was bought for the school grounds to eventually accommodate all three schools on the same campus, said school board chairman Pat Flanders.

The school board members had secondary concerns about the ability to continue to hold softball games on the field and cross country meets at the golf course.

At their monthly meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, the joint regional airport commission discussed the school's concerns. They noted that existing structures are exempt from the zoning.

"New people can't do anything else," said Steve Whitcomb, commission chairman. "It doesn't affect anything that's there. It's not retroactive."

The school board and the airport commission expressed a desire to hold a joint meeting to discuss the situation.

New clubhouse
Ron Rebrovich, the golf professional at Koronis Hills Golf Club, also attended the public hearing and wanted to be sure that the club's plans to build a new clubhouse would not be impacted by the zoning.

As a place of public assembly, the clubhouse would also be banned from zones A and B. The club's preferred site would be near the #1 tee.

An alternative site - needed in case a redesigned Highway 23 runs south of town - would be located near the #2 green.

Either site was outside of zone B under the present airport layout plan and open for building.

The golf course concerns limit the options of turning the runway to avoid the corner of the school property. "If you twist that runway any more, then you create a clubhouse problem, don't you?" asked Don Pietsch, the township representative at the airport commission meeting.

New site
Pat Meagher, who lives at the end of the present runway and owns land that the new airport would need, urged the board to consider a new site for the airport.

Meagher argued that land used by the current plan is too valuable for other development to use as an airport. "Land that's really close to town is more valuable than land that's two miles away," he said.

Furthermore, moving the airport away from town would allow room for expansion and eliminate the restrictions on the school, he said.

The airport commission did explore alternative sites after the first airport zoning hearing last summer. The problem they found is there aren't any suitable sites a couple miles from town.

To the south is Lake Koronis. To the east is Rice Lake, Highway 23, and the city's sewer ponds. To the north is the old railroad line that is now a state trail, and to the west is the Xcel Energy transmission line along the Roseville Road.

That transmission line is currently only two feet below the maximum height allowed by the airport, and the project's engineers had to contact Xcel Energy and get them to agree to keep the lines at a lower height when that transmission line is redone, a project that could start in 2002.

The nearest alternative sites are by Roscoe and Hawick, which the airport commission thinks are a long way from Paynesville. Chang-ing the site would also put the project back a couple years at least and could threaten the funds designated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to the project.

Local pilots who drive to the airport wouldn't be much affected by a five-minute drive, but an isolated location would not entice visiting pilots to town, they believe.

Meagher and the airport commission have a fundamental disagreement on the best location of an airport. The commission chose the site west of town precisely because it was close to town, because it is close to the school, and because it is close to the golf course.

"I know so many pilots that pack their clubs, get out a map, and look for a golf course that's close to an airport," Jeremy Nelson, a local pilot, told the airport commission on Wednesday.

"If they find one that's close, they do it repeatedly," he added. They might even stay for dinner or overnight, or come to a school tournament.

Paynesville has no taxis, so these pilots either would walk to their destination or would call the business for transportation, a prospect that would be more convenient to businesses if the airport were close.

Currently, Paynesville's airport is operating on a private license, which means it isn't on any aerial maps. A new airport would be public licensed, may even be paved, and should be more accessible as an entry to the community, proponents believe.

The airport commission has approved doing the appraisals, a step towards purchasing at the proposed site. But those appraisals have not started, project engineer Tom Foster of Short, Elliott, and Hendrickson told the audience at the public hearing.

Some landowners questioned if the first appraiser had been dismissed because of the price of the appraisals, but Foster said no work had been done by the first appraiser. A new appraiser was needed to get the work done on the commission's schedule.

"There are no prices yet," said council member Dave Peschong, who also serves on the airport commission. "The appraisal has not been done. An appraiser has been hired to do an appraisal."

Council member Harlan Beek questioned the commission's authority to hire an appraiser, but city attorney Bill Spooner said the commission had that right. The city council (and the township board) will need to approve the funds to purchase any land for the airport.

Sunset date
Jason Mages and Dennis Rothstein, who both farm land that could become part of the airstrip, asked the zoning board for assurance that the zoning restrictions would lapse if the airport is not built.

Mages suggested a sunset date, "so we don't have to start this process all over again to get this off," he said.

Rothstein agreed. This issue was raised at the first zoning public hearing, and Rothstein wondered why it wasn't included in an amendment.

Phil Bailey, the chairman of the zoning board, said the zoning requirements only take effect if a new runway is actually built. Without construction, there are no restrictions, he said.

Rothstein wanted assurances that the ordinance would be rescinded, something the zoning board, which now has the power to approve the ordinance, could do. Whitcomb took up Rothstein's challenge and pledged to see to it that the zoning ordinance would be rescinded if the airport project ends.

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