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Paynesville Press - May 23, 2001

MnDOT confirms new airport

By Michael Jacobson

Calls and letters - from citizens concerned about the proposed new airport in Paynesville to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) - brought MnDOT representatives to town last Thursday. The MnDOT representatives toured the proposed airport site and held a meeting with members of the airport commission, the school board, the city council, the township board, and the general public.

At the meeting's conclusion, the MnDOT officials expressed their satisfaction with the plan, their willingness to help with the project, and the need to resolve the remaining issues on a local level.

Visiting Paynesville were Ray Rought, director of MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics in St. Paul; Peter Buchen, director of the airport development sector; Kathy Vesely, airport engineering specialist; and Todd Broadwell and Lowell Flaten, highway engineers from MnDOT's Willmar office.

MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics is scheduled to be over a 60 percent partner in the new airport project. MnDOT will pay the first $200,000 for construction, plus 60 percent of most costs after that.

"We look on this as an economic generator for your community," said Rought. "We're willing to participate and help build an airport," he added.

The latest cost estimate for the project, according to Tom Foster, the project's engineer, is $1.6 million, meaning MnDOT would pay over $1 million for construction of a new runway and the local share would be around $560,000.

MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics does not get tax money to pay for airport development, Rought said. Their money comes from taxes on airplane fuel and airplane registration fees in the state. "We get no general fund money," said Rought, "so no property tax, no income tax money comes in. The users (other pilots) pay for it."

Of the local share, Paynesville Township has committed to paying $200,000, and the city of Paynesville would pay the rest.

The current airport plan was attacked on several fronts - its limiting the growth of the city, its adversely affecting the school, safety concerns it presents, and its cost. The simplest solution to most of the concerns, the critics said, would be to move the airport to a new location, further from town and further from the school.

A change that drastic in the plan would not be easy to do, Rought said, and the airport commission remains convinced that the current location is the best for the airport.

Steve Whitcomb, airport commission chairman, explained that the new airport would be built to better accommodate out-of-town pilots in visiting this community. The present airstrip is not on state maps and has a sod strip that might scare off unfamiliar pilots.

Whitcomb acknowledged legitimate concerns, but maintained that the present site was the best in the commission's view. "We don't know that it makes sense to spend any money on a location that doesn't work," he said.

The airport commission maintains that the new airstrip's proposed location, a quarter to a half mile west of town, would be accessible to pilots who want to walk to find food, lodging, transportation, or recreation.

"As a pilot," said Steve Brown, the only pilot on the airport commission, "I can attest to the fact that we do put miles on our feet once we land." Having the airport out of town wouldn't matter to him personally, Brown said, but would be much less attractive to out-of-town pilots. "I don't stop at (out-of-town airstrips)," he added. "I stop at those where I can walk."

"To see people walking there, I have a hard time believing that," said Pat Meagher, a proponent of moving the airport, in response. He lives by the airport and owns land that the commission would need to buy to build a new runway.

Foster said recording statistics for airport usage will be difficult because the strip would not have a tower to record takeoffs and landings. He expected the new airport would have over 4,000 takeoffs and landings per year to start, and would grow to have 7,000 per year in a few year's time. That averages out to 19 takeoffs and landings per day.

Leading the concerns was the school issue. Planes from the new airstrip would take off over the southern portion of the school property, including the driving range, which the school district owns and leases to the golf course.

This land, because of the air traffic, has been zoned to restrict buildings, and a sizable portion of the school's property on the southern end of their campus is in a zone where school buildings are expressly prohibited.

School board member Bob See said that if the school can't use the land it owns to build a new elementary school some day, taxpayers would eventually have to buy land again for a school. That amounts to buying land twice for a school, he said, which is ludicrous.

Township resident Mike Meagher wondered where the compensation mentioned at public hearings would come from and if that would raise the project's cost even more. He said the school should be compensated for its loss of building rights.

Rought explained that property owners could seek compensation for diminished property value in court. Rought also clarified a point to school board representatives, who were still under the mistaken understanding that the school property could not be utilized at all. The land facing building restrictions could still be used as a parking lot and as athletic fields, Rought said.

Another clarification came from Flaten, who said that the highway department is comfortable that a four-lane Highway 23 could be built with a new airport in place. This summer, MnDOT will be doing a traffic count on 23 in Paynesville to determine if a four-lane road is warranted and will be studying some possible routes north and south of town, as well as using the existing road alignment.

Either way, enough room exists in the road right-of-way for the road to pass the airport on its present alignment, Flaten said.

Concerns from citizens ranged from the airport taking prime development land from the city, to future residential development limiting future expansion of the airport and safety concerns about taking off and landing close to town and the school.

Pat and Mike Meagher argued that the land proposed for the airport would be prime land for residential developments in the future. Mike Meagher, who sells real estate commercially, compared the farm land west of town to the Chladek Addition (the development to the east of the high school) 30 years ago.

Pat Meagher said the city will surround a new airport in a few years. "If you don't see that you're blind because it's halfway surrounded already," he said.

"Once you've started this airport you're stuck with it," he added. "Right now your options (for moving to a new location) are open."

Pat Meagher also said that a surrounded airport would have no room for expansion, but Foster said that some expansion is built into the plans. Originally, only a 3,300-foot runway would be built, but the design would allow it to be expanded to 4,000 feet. The zoning has been done to accommodate a 4,000-foot strip, Foster said.

Since most airplane accidents take place during takeoffs and landings, Mike Meagher wondered if using the minimal setback standards was as safe as it could be.

While admitting that nothing was absolutely safe, Foster explained that Minnesota's airport setbacks are already twice as restrictive as those used by the Federal Aviation Administration. "The minimum standards are quite conservative from a safety perspective," he said.

Mike Meagher also questioned the township's participation in the project, citing a survey of township residents conducted some years ago that indicated the residents opposed the venture.

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