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Willmar Council OKs process to reacquire property interest in airport land

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council has authorized a process to alter or eliminate a permanent easement that officials say the city incorrectly granted for a parcel of land acquired for the new airport.

The process was approved 5-0 with two council members abstaining.

The council acted Monday night after City Administrator Charlene Stevens explained that the permanent easement was granted to the property owner as part of a mediated settlement when the city acquired land for the airport.

The airport, located two miles west of the city, opened in 2006.

Stevens said the easement is in the runway protection zone. She said the Federal Aviation Administration does not desire nor recognize permanent easements. Stevens said the FAA has indicated to the city on more than one occasion that the city must reacquire that easement so that it’s not a permanent easement.

The easement gives the landowner access to farmland located on the south side of state Highway 40.

In an interview, Bruce Peterson, planning director and acting public works director, said the city did not know that the city lacked the authority, nor did the FAA tell the city for a number of years afterward.

He said the easement was recorded, but the city didn’t know how that happened.

“All of a sudden we have an encumbrance on city-owned property that the feds participated in acquiring and we’re giving up property rights that the federal government doesn’t want us to give up,’’ said Peterson.

He said the FAA would agree to a short-term easement with multiple-year extensions, but the FAA ultimately wants the city and the FAA to be in control of that land, but the landowner disagrees.

Peterson said the resolution approved by the council authorizes city staff to get an appraisal on the easement, determine its value and look at different options for reacquiring the city’s property interest in the land.

Stevens said the city has been unsuccessful in working out an agreement with the landowner.

“In conversation with the city attorney and FAA, we feel it’s necessary to take this step. If necessary, we could condemn the easement to reacquire the rights to that,’’ Stevens said. “It is necessary to do so to come into compliance at the new airport so we can receive FAA funds.’’

Council member Ron Christianson said the easement allows the landowner to cross airport land to farm another section of property.

“It’s my understanding there is another way to get to that property,’’ he said.

Stevens agreed that there is other access to that property, but she said the landowner’s opinion is that the other route is less desirable.

The process to obtain the appraisal and explore the next options was recommended by the Public Works/Safety Committee Oct. 15 and was reported Monday by Christianson, committee chairman.

Council members voting in favor of approving the process were Jim Dokken, Bruce DeBlieck, Denis Anderson, Steve Ahmann and Audrey Nelsen.

Abstaining were Christianson and Tim Johnson.

Rick Fagerlie was absent.

Nelsen asked under point of clarification why Christianson and Johnson abstained.

City Attorney Robert Scott said he believes a council member is free to ask that question, but he did not know if those who abstained are obligated to give a reason.

Christianson and Johnson did not give reasons and Christianson went on to complete his report.

Anderson then said he wasn’t sure the council received an answer on abstentions.

Christianson said he understands a council person can vote yes, no, pass or abstain.

“I don’t believe you have to explain any reason why you’re voting,’’ he said.

City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday said any member has the right to abstain from voting on any issue, and must abstain from voting if the council member has a financial or personal interest in the outcome of the vote.

“They are not mandated. It’s an option,’’ Halliday said.

“I think we’ll leave it the way it is,’’ said Mayor Frank Yanish.

In other business, the council modified the scope of service and increased the consulting fee for Bollig Inc. of Willmar, the engineering firm designing the MinnWest sewer lift station/Lakeland Drive project.

The fee increase from $320,261 to $413,912 is the result of the city changing the design of the Lakeland Drive work from reconstruction to an overlay project.

Peterson said Bollig will study the option of converting Lakeland Drive into a three-lane roadway with a continuous center turn lane and right-turn lanes where appropriate and right-of-way space is available.

On-street parking would be eliminated between Becker Avenue and Willmar Avenue, said Peterson, and adjacent property owners would have other parking options.

“If we’re going to recognize Lakeland Drive for the major thoroughfare that it really is, we need to move traffic there,’’ said Peterson.

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