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Willmar, Minn., City Council committee backs airport land release agreement

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council will be asked next week to consider approving a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Aviation Administration that establishes three milestones for the phased release of the old airport property to the city.

City staff and the Community Development Committee are recommending council members approve the memorandum at their Monday night meeting and authorize Mayor Frank Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens to sign it.

The agreement ensures the city completes tasks in each milestone to FAA's satisfaction. Upon the city's satisfactory completion of the tasks, the FAA agrees to complete actions listed for each milestone. Satisfactory completion of all tasks should be sufficient to complete the phased land releases, according to the memorandum.

Under the first milestone, the FAA would release 95 acres. The city hopes the release happens by the end of this year or early next year.

The second milestone would release 145 acres. Officials are hoping for an April release in time for the city to solicit bids for construction of the western interceptor.

The third milestone would release about 530 acres.

The city's tasks include taking all necessary actions to prevent further deterioration of the historic features of the old terminal building and surrounding 14.5 acres of land that have been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and market the structure for business use.

The city has already undertaken exterior preservation measures such as painting and caulking to prevent further deterioration.

City officials have been negotiating the land release with FAA since the new airport opened two miles west of town in September 2006. One portion of the old airport has been prepared with municipal services for industrial development.

City officials have complained in the past that FAA often changed the release requirements, including a disagreement over the requirement to preserve the old terminal.

However, Peterson praised the memorandum because it finally establishes in writing the duties and responsibilities that the city and FAA will be required to carry out to release the property.

"We believe that it's appropriate to move forward with council approval of the memorandum and the main reason is this is the first time in this whole process we have a stationary target,'' said Peterson.

"We know exactly what has to be done,'' he told the Community Development Committee Thursday evening. "Everyone's responsibilities and obligations are defined. I'm confident it will come to an end. We have a process and we'll work it.''

Mayor Frank Yanish, who was attending the meeting, said "We are closer now than we've ever been. It's been five or six years in the making. I think we're close.''

Peterson said he has a long history with FAA and said he's never been as comfortable with agency staff as he is now.

Peterson said Steven Obenauer, the current manager of the FAA Minneapolis Airports District Office, has exhibited a willingness to work with the city unlike other FAA staff.

"As long as he's around, I'm confident that we're going to get this matter resolved,'' Peterson said. "There shouldn't be any disagreement as long as everybody sticks to their responsibilities as identified.''

Committee member Tim Johnson expressed frustration.

"The city has been held hostage. I think the target is still moving,'' he said.

Committee Chairman Jim Dokken said he and Yanish attended a meeting in June with FAA and said he thought FAA was very realistic in what it was proposing to the city.

"I think there was a common understanding,'' he said.

Committee member Steve Ahmann said he agreed with Johnson. He said the city is trying to be as transparent as possible with FAA and he feels the intergovernmental relationship should have flowed easier.

However, he was excited about the memorandum.

Committee member Bruce DeBlieck said the memorandum is written in such a way that expectations are understandable.

"We have had some confusion and problem in the past with the FAA,'' he said. "They keep changing requirements. That's been some of the frustration in the past, but just hoping that the agreement is such that we don't have those type of problems or things come up.''

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