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MnDOT divisions agree to work together on issues for Hwy 23 bypass at Paynesville

PAYNESVILLE -- At a special meeting of the Paynesville City Council on Wednesday morning, the road and aeronautics divisions of the Minnesota Department of Transportation acknowledged they will work together on the State Highway 23 bypass project planned near the city's airport.

"We can make this work," said Lowell Flaten, MnDOT District 8 preliminary design engineer.

"We can satisfy the airport needs and the road needs."

The preferred highway route to bypass Paynesville runs west and north of the city, slightly west of the existing Highway 23 near the airport, which was opened in 2003.

At issue is the highway's proximity to the fly zone at the east end of the 3,300-foot runway, according to Peter Buchen, manager of the Transportation Department's airport development division.

"There are potential impacts on the airport with this (highway) alignment," Buchen told the council. "The proximity to the end of the runway impacts the ability to expand the airport."

The $44 million road project is planned to begin in 2009. District 8 has yet to officially offer a road plan to the city for municipal consent, which is required for the project to move forward.

Mike Louis, MnDOT aviation planning director and zoning administrator for the state airport system, noted that the actual highway isn't the issue that concerns the department's aeronautics officials. Instead, the concern is about the fences and lightpoles along the highway and the lights distracting pilots on approach to the airport. Zoning rules governing the area at both ends of the runway are strict, he said.

'The zoning is in place to protect the people in the airplane and the people on the ground," he said.

Louis also noted that the city may get pressure from businesses who want to build at intersections created by the ramps. Buildings within 2,200 feet of the east end of the runway would violate the city's airport zoning ordinance, which is what makes the city eligible for state and federal airport funding.

The roadway would also limit the city's ability to expand the airport runway length to 4,000 or 5,000 feet, he said.

Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson questioned the transportation officials about their intent of bringing forward the airport expansion issues, when no expansion is planned.

"Is this really an issue?" he asked. "Is this a diversion away from the real issues?"

Council member Dennis Zimmerman expressed exasperation at the long process to get the road project approved. The city expected to give municipal consent long ago.

"We've been sitting on this design for a long time," he said. "We need to come to the bottom line."

Flaten acknowledged that the road and aeronautics divisions will work together on the project. Options include moving the exit ramps out of the fly zone so there wouldn't be ramps and light poles in the zone. Shielded lights, which would shine down and not up into the sky, could also be an option.

District 8 still sees the western route around the city as the best option, according to Flaten. "The west alternative is still the best alternative," he said.

The council took no action at the meeting. The highway is on the agenda for the council's regular Nov. 15 meeting.