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City of Willmar continues working on land release process for former municipal airport

The interior of the old Willmar airport terminal is being rented for storage. The city of Willmar is seeking the authority to develop the site as an industrial park. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Willmar city officials are working on an environmental assessment review they hope will eventually lead to the Federal Aviation Administration's release of FAA authority over the former airport property and allow the city to develop the site as an industrial park. The environmental assessment process includes a federally-required historical review that determined the 68-year-old terminal building at the former airport is historically significant and is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

City officials and state historic officials had been at odds over the terminal's historic significance.

The city wants to sell the property to Bergh's Fabricating, which in 2008 offered to buy the site for expansion purposes.

Bergh's is presently leasing the apron area in front of the former terminal and parking lot for storage. The interior of the old terminal is being rented for storage.

The State Historic Preservation Office, however, wants the city to agree to place a preservation easement on the property that would preserve the building but place certain conditions on its use.

City Administrator Michael Schmit says the city has offered to "carve out'' the 4.5-acre terminal site to allow the city to move forward with developing the remaining 700 acres of the old airport into an industrial park. But he says the FAA has not responded to the offer.

In an effort to bring the land release issue to a conclusion, the city has told the FAA that the city is willing to enter into a preservation easement for the terminal building. The details of a written preservation agreement have yet to be worked out, but the FAA has indicated that that would be an acceptable step toward the federal government's release of the old airport land.

"That was stated in a phone conversation I had with the environmental specialist at FAA,'' said Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services. "We have so far agreed to enter into a preservation easement. We still have the details to work out.''

He said the final document will have to include more detail with respect to historically significant features within the building and the site. He said the city is trying to get the environmental assessment completed before moving forward with the preservation easement "because we don't have to have that executed to get the land release as long as we provided them an assurance that we will enter into a preservation easement.''

The FAA has stated that if the city acknowledges the need for the preservation easement and agrees to enter into a preservation easement that FAA will consider that to be an adequate action with respect to historical significance and the city will not have to formally enter into the preservation easement before FAA grants the land release, according to Peterson.

FAA will not allow the city to administer the preservation easement, but is requiring the city to enter into an agreement with a third party to administer the easement, according to Peterson. The third party has not yet been selected, but an organization called the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota has presented a proposal to the city to administer the easement at a cost of $28,500. Administration involves time and expenses for required reporting, staff visits and verifications.

Peterson said the FAA is giving the city additional time to negotiate with the Preservation Alliance or whoever the designated third party might be that will hold the easement.

Peterson said the terminal's historical significance transfers along with the property if the city sells the building.

"Any future owner would be bound by the same level the city is,'' he said.

If the property is placed on the National Register, the city would be eligible for grants to rehabilitate the structure. If a private party owns the building, the owner is eligible for a 40 percent federal tax credit for any improvements they make to the structure.

"On its face that sounds like a good idea except you have to pay to have the building listed on the National Register and they told me that because it's already been deemed historical that's a major undertaking and it probably will run in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000 just to get it listed,'' said Peterson.

"When you're dealing with historically significant structures, nothing comes without a cost,'' he said. "The city cannot demolish the building. The FAA told us that if it is not maintained and it deteriorates, they view that the same as demolition and the city would be subject to sanctions.''

Officials hope to have the environmental assessment completed as soon as possible.

"The thing to remember is we just want to get the land release,'' said Peterson. "We want to terminate federal involvement in the old airport property and we're working with them and going along with their requests and demands to make that happen as expediently as possible.''

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