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City seeks agreement with FAA on former airport site

WILLMAR -- Willmar city officials are getting closer to an agreement under which the Federal Aviation Administration will release the old airport land in phases to the city for industrial development purposes.

City staff is working with FAA to draft a memorandum of agreement that would include milestones for the releases. A brief update on the land release was reported to the Willmar City Council Monday night by Jim Dokken, chairman of the council's Community Development Committee.

Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services, expanded on the update in an interview.

He said Steven Obenauer, manager of the FAA Airports District Office in Minneapolis, has proposed the memorandum that identifies the actions required of the city and FAA as each milestone in the land release process is addressed.

The land release is set up in three phases and spells out the city requirements to accomplish closure of each phase and to have FAA issue the partial releases, Peterson said. He declined to provide further details because the city doesn't have a negotiated agreement yet.

"Obenauer has a proposed memorandum of understanding and we have offered a counter proposal dealing with a couple of items,'' Peterson said. "In the course of time we'll negotiate a resolution of those items and bring it to council and get their approval and execute the document.''

The city has been negotiating with FAA to move the land release process along. The keeper of the National Register of Historic Places ruled last February that the old airport terminal building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The listing includes the smaller hangar, the old beacon and land to the south of the terminal.

The question of whether the former hangar is historic has delayed the FAA's release of the land to the city after the new airport opened in September 2006. Until the land is released, the city cannot proceed with plans to install infrastructure to allow industrial development of the old airport.

The city had disagreed with the listing but is now willing to perform basic maintenance to ensure that the historic features of the old terminal do not continue to deteriorate. The city building official had earlier declared the terminal unsafe due to mold and structural problems.

"We've advising people not to go in,'' Peterson said. Meanwhile, the city continues to lease the land around the terminal to a steel fabrication company to store product.

Peterson said the city will be working with the Public Works Department and a contractor to take care of exterior maintenance issues, gutter cleaning, roof patching, and caulking and sealing penetrations around the windows, doors and places where water intrudes, along with tree trimming and some miscellaneous drainage improvements.

"If we can control the water intrusion we can hold things at bay,'' Peterson said. "All this work on the terminal should be done in 30 days. We've got to get it done before cold weather.''

Peterson said the work toward the memorandum is good because the city finally has some firm direction.

"We have someone who said here's exactly what you have to do to move this land release along, and I'm grateful that they did agree to break it down into phases and segment the land release,'' he said. "They will release the land in portions as we hit these milestones.''

In the first phase, the city requests everything on the east side of County Road 5 with the exception of the old terminal building and land to the south.

The second phase would be everything between County Road 5 and the 69-kilovolt Municipal Utilities power line that runs north and south and a 100-foot strip on the west side of the power line where the western interceptor sewer line is proposed, along with some street work.

The third phase will be everything outside of phases 1 and 2.

"By doing it in phases, the FAA still maintains a lot of control because the first two phases that we are requesting aren't half the land. The remainder will still be unreleased after phases 1 and 2,'' Peterson said.

He's is hoping to have phases 1 and 2 released in time for the city to bid the infrastructure work as part of the 2012 construction program.

Some things that will be happening include putting together a terminal site marketing plan, putting together the federal register application and updating the environmental assessments exclusion, which is another federal worksheet.

The city is trying to negotiate removal of some details that officials feel don't apply, according to Peterson.

"We had some concerns about the timeframes because they wanted us to provide quarterly reports from marketing for two quarters and we don't have any problem doing that,'' he said.

"But if they're not going to give us the land release until after that, it will be too late to bid our projects for 2012,'' said Peterson.

Those projects include the western interceptor, the Willmar Avenue Southwest railroad crossing project and extension of Willmar Avenue into the industrial park, and sewer and water and other infrastructure on the west side of County Road 5.

Some earthwork has already been done in preparation for the Willmar Avenue crossing. If extension of Willmar Avenue proceeds, the city will need to decide what to do with the existing Willmar Avenue section between the railroad tracks and state Highway 40.

Public Works Director Holly Wilson said Monday night that no decision has been made about the future of that section of Willmar Avenue.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150