An analysis of the airport-school dispute

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/21/01.

Township resident Ed Lang hit on the nub of the dispute between the school and the proposed airport when he accused the airport zoning of blocking any future expansion of the school.

At the annual meeting of Paynesville Township on Tuesday, March 13, Lang asked Steve Whitcomb, the chairman of the Paynesville Regional Airport Commission if it was true that the zoning would stop school expansion.

Not fact, Whitcomb replied, just opinion.

The discussion that continues between the airport commission, the airport zoning board, and the school board is aimed at determining if there is a mutually agreeable solution. But the talk at the school board and airport commission meetings last week seemed to indicate that both sides were still holding strongly to their position.

Here's a look at five key points that divide the sides.

School expansion
The airport zoning would have impact on school property, but the crux of the matter is to what extent it would limit the school's future options. The pro-school view is that the schools should all be located on one campus someday, and with a limited amount of land, the school would be remiss not to reserve all of it for its potential needs.

The pro-airport view is that the school can use their property, just maybe not as they once expected. Since the school has no immediate or concrete plans, it's impossible to say how the zoning requirements would impact a school building plan in the future.

Safety
The pro-school view is that a runway would be better built some direction other than at a school; that's why schools are expressly prohibited from the closest airport zones.

The pro-airport view is that if this is so dangerous, then why was the high school built at the end of the existing runway in 1969? And why was the middle school added to it in the early 1990s?

Highway 23
Proponents of a change in airport location have questioned what impact a four-lane Highway 23 would have on the airport, but MnDOT has approved the airport plan. The route of 23 could impact the school if it takes a southern route and uses part of the driving range, which the school owns, leaving less room for school expansion.

The pro-airport view would question whether a bigger safety concern for the school ought to be bus and car accidents, especially on a busy highway like 23. Traffic accidents are a more likely danger than planes hitting physical education students on a practice field.

Would a four-lane Highway 23 strengthen the case for building a new elementary school on some other portion of the school property, away from the heaviest traffic on Highway 23?

Community impact
The pro-school argument is fairly obvious. The schools will have more kids than the airport will have planes. The pro-school view is they have more relative importance.

The pro-airport view is that the importance of having an airport is not generally understood. The purpose is to provide another avenue of entrance to the community, with possible impact on residential growth, tourism, and economic development. With state aid, the local cost of an airport ($400,000) is roughly the same as building a short stretch of road.

And the pro-airport view might be more sympathetic to the school view if the school had concrete plans. The airport, on the other hand, is close to becoming a reality and might never get as close again if this attempt falters.

Finger-pointing
Both sides have done a little of this, blaming the other side for raising issues at the last minute. But this has been, and should be, kept to a minimum, and a mutually agreeable solution should be sought.

Without that, the airport side faces a tough decision. For while they try to convince the school that their plan will not irreparably impact the school, it is the school who really needs to convince the airport supporters that the current airport plan shouldn't move forward.

For the school's opposition, whatever its popular support, has no binding effect. If the sides are truly at an impasse, the joint zoning board gets to decide whether the school's concerns merit drastic alterations - potentially project halting - or to adopt the zoning ordinance and proceed with the current airport plan.

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