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Not clear to land: MN city invokes eminent domain on ‘runway to nowhere’

By   /   February 5, 2014  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward  | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

MORA, Minn. — A proposed $1.5 million grass landing strip, which critics call the ‘runway to nowhere,’ touches down in a Minnesota courtroom next week.

The case involves eminent domain and centers on 9 acres of woods and wetlands, which are impeding a project that, if resubmitted in its current form, may fail to meet current federal guidelines.

“I’m not against eminent domain, but I should have some say,” said Greg Yankowiak, who’s fighting the Mora Municipal Airport’s annexation on part of his 75-acre landscaping business. “If they wanted to put a highway in front of my property, I’d gladly do whatever they need. But what’s going in is worth less value than what’s being taken out.”

The crosswind runway would serve as an emergency backup during windy conditions at the unmanned air strip, replacing a similar runway incorporated into the city’s industrial park. The landing strip would be the only crosswind runway available between the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Duluth.

The north-central Minnesota city acquired most of the acreage for the expansion, largely with funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, which pays 90 percent of the cost of airport improvements.

PRICE OF PROGRESS: Nine acres of wetland and wildlife habitat will be wiped out if court approves eminent domain request for crosswind runway that would not qualify for federal funds under today’s criteria.

Yet the replacement runway has become a case study in how the availability of federal money can drive local decision-making, regardless of questions over cost and the ultimate need for it.

For starters, city officials say if they were starting from scratch the project might face trouble getting off the ground. They point to lackluster local support and the cost to taxpayers.

“If everybody came to the table and this wasn’t something that was planned before, I don’t know,” said Joel Dhein, city administrator of Mora. “It may not be something they’d really want to put their money toward. So it’s really hard to say.”

Some of the airport’s neighbors also point out that the number of take-offs and landings at the municipal airport—more than 24,000–appear to be wildly exaggerated on the city website.

“There’s no way.  Not even close,” said Bruce Burk, who keeps an eye on the airport from his dairy supply business next door. “I’d say if they get two or three a day in the wintertime, half a dozen a day in the summertime, maybe a dozen or 20 on a Saturday or Sunday when the guys are out playing … .  But that’s it.  There’s no way.  I can’t imagine.”

Moreover, studies estimate the proposed runway won’t attract enough planes to meet the FAA’s current criteria for federal funding. But that’s not stopping anyone.

The FAA cleared the project before the agency revised its own guidelines. Federal and state officials support the runway despite estimates it will get less than half of the 500 take-offs and landings necessary under today’s funding guidelines.

Notes from a July 2013 meeting on the issue paraphrase statements by Gordon Nelson, an FAA official: “Even though the runway didn’t meet current operations needed for funding, the proposed crosswind is a replacement runway and had been planned since before the current funding rules were put in place. … It would be financially irresponsible to not see the project to fruition given the funds spent on it to date.”

At this point, it would be more expensive for taxpayers to jettison the runway than to complete it. The city would be required to reimburse the FAA about $275,000 already spent on the project; it would cost about $100,000 in local matching funds to finish it.  Local taxpayers have already shelled out about $130,000 that will never be recouped, regardless of the outcome.

“You could say it would cost us more to go backwards than forwards,” said Dhein. “That’s because of the amount of money we’ve already accepted from the FAA for this project and acquiring land. It would cost us more to repay it, and the land isn’t worth what we paid for it seven years ago with land prices falling.”

But a recently retired city official said the runway will cost taxpayers more over time.

“Construction would initially be $53,132 less expensive,” wrote Mason Hjelle, former city clerk and treasurer for Mora in an op-ed. “Annual mowing and maintenance costs ($4,000-$9,000) and possible fencing costs would soon make construction more expensive than abandoning.”

In the end, the Mora City Council voted to spend more taxpayer money on the runway to save even more taxpayer money, which would go to the FAA.  But the Yankowiaks turned down the city’s $36,000 offer for the last parcel of land needed to move ahead.  So officials will ask for court approval to invoke eminent domain, effectively taking the wetlands and 120 trees the landscaper planted for a wildlife shelter.

“You’re not going to get five wetlands back, you’re not going to get 100-year-old oak trees back, you’re not going to get wildlife habitat and agricultural property back,” said Yankowiak. “It’s gone forever.  I’m a caretaker of this land, I’m not an owner.  I want to preserve the natural resources that are here.”

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org

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Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.