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Horace May Elementary: School fears losing school forest to MnDOT road

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Time is of the essence for Bemidji School District administrators to decide on a plan to develop a new driveway to Horace May Elementary School.

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to close Horace May's two access points along U.S. Highway 71 as part of a larger project to widen Highway 71.

The proposed access road to Horace May will be developed from the north, off Oak Hills Road.

MnDOT plans to reconstruct state Highway 197, from Lueken's Village Foods South to Highway 71, to have two driving lanes in each direction and a center left-turn lane.  The work is scheduled to begin in April 2010.

"We can't have backed vehicles on the highway anymore," said Bill Pirkl, MnDOT district traffic engineer. "When it comes to four lanes of traffic, we had real safety concerns with some of the access roads along the highway."

MnDOT had originally intended to build the school's access road from Oak Hills Road directly to the school grounds. After hearing concerns from school officials, MnDOT now requires the school to build its own driveway from the frontage road off of Oak Hills Road.

The cost of building the driveway will be reimbursed by MnDOT.

"We addressed the school's concerns and decided the school should build its own driveway to best minimize the impact on the school grounds," Pirkl said.

Pirkl said MNDOT successfully worked with a developer to approve the construction of the access road through a section of his property.

The department also had discussions with Bemidji Township officials. Bemidji Township would eventually own the road.

Costs

The relocation proposal of Horace May's driveway from the access road is for $369,722, and includes the following breakdown:

- Temporary easement: $100.

- Relocate trees: $5,000.

- Construct new driveway from the north: $289,900.

- Access control: $5,000.

- Construct new frontage road (no curb): $69,722.

Losing the forest

The Horace May grounds development committee expressed concerns to the Bemidji School Board on the proposed access road.

The committee fears developing a driveway from the north could cut through the school's outdoor classroom.

"We have had this classroom since the school was built in the early 1970s," said Kate Pearson, committee member and second-grade teacher at Horace May.

"The road could cut right through what we call our boreal forest, which we've been working to restore for a long time," she said.

The committee asked the district to ask MnDOT to reconsider building the access road from the north. They suggested building from the south, instead.

"We know that once our outdoor classroom is gone, we will never get it back," said Pearson.

Pirkl said MnDOT understands the sensitivity of the school forest, which is why the department wants the school to own the road.

"We have designed a very environmentally friendly road," said Pirkl. "It will be up to the school to build its driveway."

Safety Issues

"The offer from MnDOT is formal and the clock is ticking," said Chris Leinen, the school district director of business services.

Although the proposed driveway would be reimbursed by MnDOT, School Board members expressed concerns over services, such as snow removal and driveway maintenance, which would fall on the shoulders of the school district.

"Since the MNDOT is going to build a driveway, not a public road, the school district will be fiscally responsible to maintain it," said Leinen.

According to Leinen, the following items need to be addressed to MnDOT before construction begins:

- Future road maintenance and repair costs to the district.

- Snow removal.

- Walk zone safety for neighbors.

- Combining of cars and buses.

- Student safety concerns relating to increased traffic close to the building.

- Congestion entering Oak Hills Road from the school.

- Congestion entering Highway 71 from Oak Hills Road.

- Safety concerns of no traffic light at Oak Hills Road.

Leinen questioned whether the proposed access road would be sufficient to meet the school's needs should the building expand in the future. He also questioned its water retention capabilities and the lack of a traffic signal on Oak Hills Road.

Pirkl said MnDOT engineers started planning on the basis of the school's main concern, which was the addition a traffic signal on Highway 71.

"Developing the access road from the north gives the School District the best potential for a traffic signal," Pirkl said.

However, he said, MnDOT cannot put a traffic signal up unless the traffic count warrants one.

Alternatives

"Life would be so much easier if we would come in from the south, but the added traffic was a concern," said Pirkl.

MnDOT observed the peak traffic hours on North Plantagenet Road were the same as the school's peak traffic times.

"School busses would have to compete with additional traffic. They would also have to take a left onto the frontage road, which is a dangerous move," Pirkl said.

An access road coming from the south would not line up with the new parking lot at Horace May, and the school would have to build another parking lot elsewhere.

"We also don't have a cooperating developer in the south," Pirkl said.

He said MnDOT engineers also assessed developing an access road from the west, but that would entail reconstructing a gravel road. That option would cost the department three or four times more money than any other option.

Future steps

"My next move is to get a second appraisal on the driveway," said Leinen.

At Monday night's school board meeting, Superintendent Jim Hess said he would try to set up a meeting with a MnDOT representative to further discuss the driveway proposal.

"The road design from Oak Hills Road to the property line of Horace May is in place and set to go," Pirkl said. "MnDOT is putting the alignment of the driveway into the hands of the school district."

awilliams@bemidjipioneer.com

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