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Willmar submits environmental review to secure airport land release from FAA

WILLMAR -- The city of Willmar has completed and submitted an environmental assessment review that officials hope will lead the Federal Aviation Administration to release its authority over the old airport and let the city redevelop it into an industrial park.

The land release formally releases the city from any obligations under previous FAA grant agreements that existed for the airport property, said Bruce Peterson, director of city planning and development services.

"That's why they call it a land release, and it allows us to take full control of it and it eliminates any interest at all by the federal government in that property.''

The city has been working on the environmental review for a number of months. Earlier this month, the city received additional comments from FAA for the city's latest version of the environmental review. The following week, the city responded to the balance of FAA concerns and comments, provided additional document appendices, and returned the document to FAA on March 11.

Peterson said the city hopes the FAA will finalize and prepare the draft for public and agency comment during the 30-day review period, which he anticipates will begin later in March.

Peterson thinks the city has a document that should satisfy the FAA and other agencies. During the "back and forth'' process with FAA, various agencies had access to the environmental review document, he said.

"We've already addressed a number of concerns in the document and we're hoping by doing it that way, it will eliminate or severely reduce the number of comments we get during the formal review period and we'll speed up the process after that because we have to address all the comments that we receive during the formal review,'' he said.

"We're hopeful we're on a downhill slide here.''

The environmental review included a federally required historical review that determined the 69-year-old terminal at the old airport is historically significant and is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The FAA is requiring the city to preserve the 4.5-acre terminal site with a preservation easement before the agency will grant the land release.

City officials and the FAA had been at odds over the terminal's historic significance. However, FAA has indicated that if the city proceeds with a preservation easement, the agency will grant the land release, "but they want to see some progress,'' said Peterson.

In the near future, Peterson said, a meeting will be arranged with representatives of the city, FAA, the Minnesota Preservation Alliance and Bergh's Fabricating, a company wanting to buy the terminal for business expansion purposes, to discuss the terms of the easement.

"I want to make sure everybody's clear as to how that easement affects the use and the future of that property, and I wanted Bergh's at the table because of the fact that we've got a purchase agreement with them,'' said Peterson.

"If they're going to follow through on their purchase, they deserve to have a place for discussion so that we're not coming up with something that is going to unduly burden anyone's ability to use that property in the future.''

Peterson said whoever buys the terminal would be required to keep the terminal building intact. They can use it, but cannot tear it down. They could make alterations to it, but the alterations must be consistent with the historical notations that are documented in the preservation easement.

A historical analysis said the terminal was significant because it was built in 1941 as a National Youth Administration project with federal "New Deal'' funds. The analysis cited the terminal's complex wooden roof trusses as a rare surviving example of the work of a National Youth Administration work center.

The Preservation Alliance has submitted a proposal to administer the preservation easement. The proposal comes with an obligation on the city's part to reimburse the alliance for the $28,500 administration cost.

But Peterson believes the cost could be paid from proceeds from the local option sales tax, which voters approved to finance local projects including redevelopment of the old airport into an industrial park. Peterson said the easement cost is part of the property's reuse and redevelopment.

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