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Bemidji Regional Airport Authority: Proposal would expand JPB zoning authority

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board's zoning authority would expand into Grant Valley and Eckles townships under a Bemidji Regional Airport Authority proposal.

The two townships don't have zoning or land use ordinances, and aren't members of the JPB, which includes the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships.

Yet both townships have land within safe zones monitored by the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority, and the authority is proposing that the administration and enforcement of all airport zoning be given to the JPB, including airport zones in Grant Valley and Eckles.

"Politically, this will be very sensitive," JPB Planning Administrator Mel Milender told the Airport Authority last week. "Bemidji, Bemidji Township and Northern Township will take it in stride because the authority is already law."

Harold Van Leeuwen, Airport Authority executive director, said the airport has had zoning authority for its safe zones which extend beyond airport runways, but that it must pay closer attention to them under a new airport master plan.

Previously, construction popped up around Bemidji, with after-the-fact variances sought from the airport for building in an airport crash safe zone. New runway construction shifted those zones around, and will become near impossible to seek variances.

"We're contracting the administration of zoning, not zoning itself," Van Leeuwen said. "Zoning already exists there."

By having the JPB administer airport zoning, requests for zoning-type vehicles such as variances and conditional use permits will go through the JPB process, although the Airport Authority retains the final decision on such requests.

And the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation is the ultimate final authority. "We can't take away the commissioner's authority to grant or deny," Van Leeuwen said.

The JPB and Airport Authority are currently working on memo of understanding that would give the JPB authority to administer airport zoning. Under the proposal, neither the JPB nor Airport Authority would expand with members from each group.

Negotiated would be an annual fee from the airport to the JPB for the work. JPB would develop an overlay district showing the airport zones over the zones already administered by the JPB.

"The JPB shall administer and enforce all state and local zoning requirements within the airport overlay district in the same manner and procedures that are required by the JPB zoning ordinance," a draft memo states.

The Airport Authority would "formally delegate authority and appoint the JPB as the airport zoning commission and board of adjustment with authority to administer and enforce all actions regarding land use and zoning within the airport zoning overlay district," the draft states.

"Zoning actions requiring a public hearing shall be completed by the JPB and reviewed by the Airport [Authority] before being granted a permit," the draft states.

Those properties within the airport zones in Grant Valley and Eckles townships will see formal zoning restricting height, density and distance from runways, Milender said.

"I agree with the approach of speaking with the other two towns about what the airport is intending, but I do not necessarily see that any sort of formal approval from them is needed," Tony Gilchrist, the JPB's attorney with Kennedy & Graven, wrote in a memo to Milender.

"In other words, if one of the towns doesn't like the idea, they may not be able to stop it," Gilchrist wrote.

The three JPB member governments, however, should each approve a resolution to expand the JPB's work, he recommended.

One of the first actions, Milender said, would be to send letters to those affected property owners in Grant Valley and Eckles informing them that their titles and abstracts will now be recorded as restricted to zoning.

That could be as soon as October, if the formal memo of understanding is adopted.