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Joint Planning Commission: Building recommended to JPC for Voyageurs' relocation

Voyageurs Expeditionary High School is one step closer to moving across town.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that a Conditional Use Permit be approved for the school. The CUP would allow Voyageurs to utilize the former Kobilka's Sporting Goods building, 3724 Bemidji Ave. N., as a school.

With its recommendation, the JPC listed several improvements that would need to be made to the property before the school's new occupancy is finalized.

Voyageurs, a public charter school, currently houses a total of 65 students in grades 9-12. It has been at its current location in the Mayflower building in Union Square since October 2005. It first opened as a school for grades 9-10 at the German Village, Waldsee, at the Concordia Language Villages.

The former Kobilka's site includes two separate parcels that would need to be consolidated into one in order for the building to meet JPB zoning requirements.

"We are excited about the possibility of moving to a site with more design flexibility," said Voyageurs' Director Julie Johnson-Willborg. "We are excited to have some green space. I'm hopeful that the recommendations and considerations will go forward."

A smaller building

The CUP would allow the Voyageurs to relocate with a limit of 10 employees and 65 students.

Several JPC members voiced their concerns regarding the downsizing of building space while keeping the same number of students.

If Voyageurs relocated, it would go from a building with approximately 12,000 square feet to a building to 8,100 square feet.

"I think that's a significant change that we need to address, particularly if expansion is requested later," said Mel Milender, the planning administrator for the joint planning office.

Voyageurs' current permit at its location in Union Square allows up to 100 students, which gives approximately 120 square feet per student.

Voyageurs plans to remodel the Kobilka's building into classroom space with only minor exterior changes to the site.

"We are not planning gymnasiums, locker rooms or full-service kitchens," Johnson-Willborg said. "We intend to have an open floor plan design made for our project-based learning model. We will include a little bit more technology-based material."

The property owner will also need to provide the JPB with an original Certificate of Occupancy issued by a certified State of Minnesota Commercial Building Inspector prior the school's occupancy.

Water issues

Kobilka's septic system, installed in 1999, was designed to accommodate building wastewater flows of 600 gallons per day.

Voyageurs' assessed its current water usage; however, the results were inconclusive, as the school shares a water meter with Giovanni's Restaurant, the current neighboring business occupant.

Wes' Plumbing, the subsurface sewage treatment system designer and installer, addressed the need for ongoing monitoring of actual water usage and recommended some minor system changes.

"I'm pretty concerned about the septic system. It was put in to accommodate a business but wasn't built to accommodate 65 teenage kids," said commission member Kristi Miller. "I'm wondering if we need to look at it a little more closely."

As part of its recommendation, the JPC said the SSTS tank would need to be pumped and an effluent filter and alarm would need to be installed with the septic tank prior to the school's occupancy.

Additionally, the property owner would have to provide the JPC with quarterly reports of metered water usage for the property. If water usage for the property exceeds the 600 gallon per day SSTS design capacity for more than 10 days in any given month, then the SSTS system would need to be abandoned and connected to the city's central sewer system or an approved designed and installation of a new SSTS for the building.

The property is currently served by city water.

"The staff feels very confident about that and we've built into the recommendation that we will be fully on top of that," said Andrew Mack, assistant planner for the joint planning office.

Parking, traffic

According to Mack, adequate parking exists on the property for meeting the required 19 parking spaces. In its recommendation, the JPC said the school would need to restripe the parking area before the school moves in.

The JPC also recommended that a fence, or other barrier at least 5 feet tall, would need to be constructed in the rear of the building to prevent outdoor recreation on the SSTS.

Voyageurs has reported that per day, only one school bus drops off and picks up students at the school; approximately between three and five parents drop their children off; and only five or six students drive to school.

Commission member Richard Slinkman voiced his concern about the hazards of an open campus policy and the building's close proximity to Slim's Bar & Grill.

"When Voyageurs went through the moving process five years ago, we were concerned about the location downtown and kids taking off at noon and running into problems," Slinkman said.

Johnson-Willborg assured the JPC that Voyageurs would continue to have a closed campus.

"The location of this school is so close to the highway really concerns me," Slinkman added. "I do see the traffic particularly in the rush hours."

Public recycling

Two large public recycling containers are situated on Bemidji Avenue building site.

The JPC noted the conflict of the site's continuance as a public recycling drop site and its location on school grounds. The JPC recommended the containers be removed from the property and an alternative location be identified prior to the school's occupancy.

"I think the amount of traffic moving in and out of there right now is going to be 100 times less than what it is right now," said commission member Jess Frenzel. "It will probably make it better by relocating the containers."

In its recommendation, the JPC added the existing flood lights on the property will need to be removed as well as the freestanding pole fixture at the sound end, which is not in compliance with ordinance requirements.

Next step

As part of its recommendation, the JPC called for an annual review of Voyageurs after one year in its new location.

The JPB will consider the JPC's recommendation at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Bemidji City Hall.