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City, state at odds over historical significance of old airport terminal

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WILLMAR -- The final plat for the first phase of redeveloping the old airport into an industrial park is completed and scheduled for spring adoption, says Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services for the city of Willmar.

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He said the timing is right, given the schedule for land release from the Federal Aviation Administration and anticipated sales of former airport property.

Progress is slow, however, in obtaining FAA's release of the former airport terminal building and adjacent 4.5 acres due to what Peterson calls the debatable finding by the State Historic Preservation Office of the terminal's historical significance.

The city wants to sell the terminal property to nearby Bergh's Fabricating, which would demolish the building for expansion purposes, but the State Historic Preservation Office wants the terminal preserved with a conservation easement that would allow restricted use of the building.

Bergh's doesn't want the conservation easement, however, and is renting the terminal area for material storage.

In an interview, Dennis Gimmestad, State Historic Preservation Office compliance officer, said the terminal has historic significance because it was constructed by the National Youth Administration and is associated with John L. Rice, who pioneered aviation services in Willmar in the 1940s.

Peterson said he can't deny the fact that a historically significant individual was involved on the property.

"It meets one of their categories. Whether or not their categories are legitimate, I can't say,'' Peterson said.

Gimmestad said the FAA must release the terminal site as part of the potential transfer of the property to another owner.

Peterson says FAA won't release it until the State Historic Preservation Office is satisfied.

Peterson has a purchase agreement to sell the terminal site to Bergh's. However, the sale is hung up over debate about the terminal's historical significance.

Peterson said the city owes the state approximately $800,000 for developing the old airport. Peterson had hoped to begin paying off the debt with $200,000 from the sale to Bergh's.

As part of FAA's obligation under the National Historic Preservation Act, the agency evaluates areas that might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and seeks the state's opinion on those determinations, said Gimmestad.

"In this case, the Federal Aviation Administration, through the city's arranging for a consultant to do the evaluation, has reached a determination that this area is eligible to the Register, and our office has concurred,'' said Gimmestad.

"So for purposes of what we call the Section 106 review, which is what the federal agency needs to go through as part of potential disposal of the property, we are treating the property as eligible to the National Register,'' he said.

Gimmestad said the loss of the structure could be mitigated by recording it with archival photographs or using other methods if the property cannot be preserved or if no assurance can be made that the property will be preserved.

"But in this case, we're really hoping to have a successful means of preserving the property so we don't have to mitigate its loss,'' he said.

The state hopes that can be done by attaching a conservation easement to the property, which would require a buyer to preserve the building but still allow its use.

Peterson says the city is seeking to mitigate the historic designation and the proposed conservation easement. He said the easement places severe limitations on what can be done with the building.

"So we will work with the state and FAA as diligently as we can to eliminate any possible easement that they may wish to place on the property,'' he said.

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