Impasse remains on airport zoning

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/14/01.

An impasse remains between the school board and the airport committees after a two-hour working meeting on Monday, March 5, at city hall.

The meeting was held to clear the air after the school board passed a resolution opposing the proposed airport zoning ordinance at their Feb. 13 meeting.

The most restrictive portions of the zoning ordinance are in zones A and B, both of which impact the southern portion of the school district's property. Zone A can have no buildings at all, but may be used for nonspectator outdoor recreation, agriculture, and parking. Zone B may have buildings, but schools are specifically prohibited. The zoning ordinance would not affect any existing uses of the school's land, but could impact future development.

The school's long-term plan - since the campus was bought for the new high school in 1969 - was to put all its buildings on the same site. "At some point, we need to allow for an elementary school at that site," Pat Flanders, school board chairman, told the two airport committees represented: the Paynesville Regional Airport Commission and the Joint Airport Zoning Board.

The school's idea would be to build the school across the parking lot from the existing middle school. The board wouldn't want the elementary and middle schools to be connected, as it feels elementary children should be separated from older students. But having the schools on one campus would eliminate some inefficiencies, including transportation costs, of having schools across town. Click here for a map of the area.

"The logical place to build (a new elementary school) is where that plowed field is," Flanders explained. Most of that plowed field lies in zones A and B.

Flanders admitted that the school has no immediate plans to do this. In fact, he predicted that it wouldn't happen while any of the current members were on the board. Not protecting these plans "is just not good vision on the part of the school," he said.

The school owns the land for the golf course's driving range but leases it to the club. Currently, 20 years remain on the lease. Ultimately, Flanders predicted, "The school will need all that land."

Should the school build at the high school site, the current elementary school building and grounds would likely be sold to try to raise money for construction, said Flanders.

School board member Deb Glenz agreed with Flanders, except that she anticipates the need for a new school to arrive sooner. "The reality is if we drop down to average class sizes of 60 we can't afford to run two sites," she said.

Airport position
The airport committees are working to fit the new runway close to town, to the dismay of some critics who think the airport should be moved farther from town. Steve Whitcomb, chairman of the airport commission, said the various airport committee members believe this site to be the best for a new airport.

"The reason you build an airport is so that planes can get to Paynesville," Whitcomb explained. That means it should be close enough for visiting pilots to get to the school and golf course and to find lodging and meals.

The airport can't be moved a couple miles out of town because no suitable location exists, and moving it five miles out of town diminishes its impact as an entry port to Paynesville. "That works if you don't want anyone to use it," said Whitcomb. "Why spend all the money if no one is going to use it?"

The airport in Paynesville is intended to file a hole in the state's coverage, but not to become a huge commercial port, as Willmar and St. Cloud already have airports nearby, said Steve Brown, a commission member.

Squeezing it in
While the school's plan would be to build the school on the other side of the parking lot from the middle school, airport commission member Don Pietsch suggested that a school could be built closer to the existing school and still not be connected. Then the land that faces restrictions could be used for parking lot and practice fields, acceptable uses under the zoning plan.

"Would it fit?" asked Flanders. This was a question that no one has the answers to because the school has no immediate plans to build. (The idea was raised for the school to do some site planning about where future buildings could be sited, but Glenz and Flanders, citing the recent $500,000 budget cuts, said the school has no funds to do this.)

Whitcomb explained that the zoning ordinance would be under local control, with the city's building inspector providing initial enforcement. Landowners would have the option to try for a variance to escape restrictions, and that board would be local, too, Whitcomb said.

Flanders expressed reluctance to rely on a variance that could or could not be granted.

Glenz and Gretchen O'Fallon, another school board member, expressed discomfort at squeezing an elementary school around the these safety zones. "Even if we can have it there, do we want to have it there?" asked O'Fallon.

"Whether we can legally squeeze it in or not, I can't in good conscience go along with it," said Glenz.

Whitcomb responded by pointing out that the airport was built in 1947 and the high school in 1969, implying that the airport was a good enough neighbor for the high school to be built adjacent to it and for the middle school to be built nearer to it a decade ago.

After the second zoning hearing in February, the airport zoning board was ready to hold a meeting to discuss approving the zoning ordinance. Their meeting has been cancelled for March as they await a compromised solution to the impasse.

"We all live here," said zoning board chairman Phil Bailey of the committee's intent to work out a solution. "We all have kids and grandkids that go to school here. We all want to do what's best for the town."

Commission member Bert Stanley suggested a land swap as one solution option. The airport committee could try to purchase land on the north end of the school's campus, which does not face restrictions, and swap it for land at the southern end.

Another option would be to build the elementary school where the high school football field and track are now. Right now, the school has a considerable amount invested in the track. "We're talking 25 years down the line," explained Stanley. "Its useful life will be over."

The three boards each appointed one member to work on an ad hoc committee for solutions to the problem. Representing the school board is Dan Andersen, the airport commission is Dave Peschong, and the zoning board is Bailey.

A continued impasse would force the airport committees to a difficult decision, to keep their current plan or explore other options. "If there's nothing that can be done, that's a huge challenge to us," said Whitcomb.

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