Any plans to realign and expand Houston County's airport were formally put on hold last week, possibly for decades.

On Dec. 11, commissioners voted to pursue state monies to help pay the local match required to simply repave the existing runway. Apron areas would also be repaved, but those would not qualify for state grants.

The primary source of funding for the project is FAA Airport Improvement Dollars, an annual stipend that the county has been saving for several years.

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski told commissioners that placing an additional two to three inches of asphalt over the runway would result in a better surface than doing a mill/overlay.

"It's stronger just to put down a tack coat and then pave over it," he said.

Preliminary estimates for two inches of new paving are $633,000, Pogodzinski reported. FAA entitlement and state funds could cut the county's share of the cost to as little as $14,000, he added, stating that if two layers (totaling three inches) are needed the cost would only require about another $5,000 in local matching dollars.

"For the cost, an overlay may be the best option for the county," Pogodzinski said.

"We need to do a survey to determine the cross-slope of the runway," he explained. Some older facilities have a flat paving surface, but current runway specifications call for a 2 percent crown, the same as roadways.

With minimal maintenance such as occasional seal coating, the new surface should last about 20 years, Pogodzinski stated. Houston County has already set aside nearly $600,000 in FAA monies towards land acquisition, he noted.

With expansion plans shelved, those dollars can be used towards adding new pavement over the aging runway.

"I'm not against improving the airport," Commissioner Steve Schuldt said, "just not now."

"This should buy us time," Commissioner Teresa Walter added.

Schuldt made a motion to move forward with the paving work, including planning and applying for state bonding monies. Seconded by Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, the measure passed by unanimous vote.

Frac sand consultant bows out

Environmental Services director Rick Frank reported that St. Paul consulting firm Short Elliot Hendrickson has "declined to proceed" with a review of the Tracie Erickson Frac Sand Mine's environmental assessment worksheet (EAW), citing a potential conflict of interest.

The company was hired by commissioners to perform the service on Nov. 20.

"This did set us back a couple of weeks," Frank said, adding that interviews with other consulting firms would begin the next day.

Frank did not elaborate on what the conflict entailed, but stated in November, "at this point they assured us they do not have any connection with frac sand in Minnesota."

The company has worked for frac sand companies in Wisconsin.

Bid opening yields no response

County auditor Char Meiners reported that no bids had been received for a 22-acre parcel of land that was originally bought as a building site for a new public works facility.

Noting that an ongoing lease agreement for the use of the farmland was a possible complicating factor in the sale, commissioners took no further action. The lease expires next year.

"It would cost the county a lot of money to buy back that contract or if it was sold it would cost the landlord to buy it back," Zmyewski stated. "It could probably go back out for bids this fall when that contract is said and done with."

Old jail plans considered

Bruce Schwartzman of architectural firm BKV Group of Minneapolis met with commissioners to discuss possible uses for the now-vacant Houston County Jail building.

"There's a lot of opportunity there, it's very sound." Schwartzman said of the structure, adding that he was familiar with the historic jail after having worked for the county on its Justice Center plans.

Two "very viable" floors could be converted into office space, Schwartzman said. The building could either go towards public use or a private business opportunity, he stated.

Even a bed and breakfast may want to locate there. State codes are somewhat flexible where historic structures are concerned, Schwartzman added.

In addition, even buildings that are on the national historic register may be removed after necessary documentation is performed, he said.

Various state grants might help pay for a feasibility study and a later renovation. "The county would need to decide the scope of the work prior to pursuing such a grant," Schwartzman noted.

County EDA coordinator Jordan Wilms confirmed that a state grant of $5,000 may be available to help pay for a feasibility study and offered to look into the matter.

Schwartzman said his company often develops those documents, which typically cost from $10,000 to $20,000.

Commissioners asked Schwartzman to return with a proposal for a study. He agreed, stating that the offer would focus on four points - a structural analysis, historic analysis, renovation cost estimates and demolition costs.

Other news from the board

Commissioners voted to advertise a tax forfeiture sale on a parcel of land located in the city of Houston. The county has spent $10,712 on the property, including demolition of an old house, Meiners reported. The lot will be advertised for $11,000.

County attorney Jamie Hammell met with commissioners in closed session, citing "threatened litigation." No case has been filed in the undisclosed matter, and no resolution has yet been found, she told The Herald.