Despite two years of searching, the Stillwater Area School District has struggled to find a potential location for a proposed bus terminal.
During a school board meeting last month, executive director of finance and operations Kristen Hoheisel presented a purchase agreement for a 31.41 acre property in Afton for $6.85 million — nearly twice the expected cost of $3.5 million and more than four times the proposed size of 7 acres of property.
The school board voted to table the purchase of the new bus terminal to a September meeting in order to gather more information about the property and to investigate potential environmental issues at the current bus terminal.
During the creation of the 2015 Long-Range Facilities Bond, which was approved by voters, board member George Hoeppner put forward a suggestion by district staff to include funding to purchase a new bus terminal to house the district’s school buses.
Currently, the district leases a bus storage site and maintenance garage at 5288 Stagecoach Trail North in Oak Park Heights. This location is used by Minnesota Central School Bus, which holds the district’s transportation contract. By purchasing property for the terminal with one-time capital funds, the district planned to stop using general fund dollars to pay for the lease each year.
The proposed new bus terminal property is located in the northern industrial-zoned section of Afton, just south of Interstate 94 near Osgood Avenue.
“A 10,250 square foot building has been occupied by Century College transportation training center facility since its construction in 2009,” Hohesiel said Aug. 10. “The purchase price has met board
parameters from closed session, so I would ask for your approval at this time.”
Board member Shelly Pearson asked if there would be increased transportation costs by moving the bus terminal south.
“Are we anticipating any transportation increase because we are moving south to the southern end of the district rather than the central part?” Pearson asked. “Will it cost more money?”
“I don’t anticipate having to run additional buses based on this site,” Hoheisel said.
“Is there a change in the tax impact or is this money that we already have available to use,” Pearson asked. “Will our taxpayers be responsible for anything more than they already are?”
“No,” Hoheisel said.
Board member Mike Ptacek said he was comfortable with the $3.5 million that was originally budgeted in the bond, and at the time thought the project was a good idea. Now he isn’t as sure.
“If we were to compare with the lease agreement … it would take roughly 30 years to catch up and get even,” Ptacek said. “The length of time to regroup the cost we would pay in the lease amount bothers me a lot and that is why I’m not going to support this proposal.”
Board member Jennifer Pelletier said the board had discussed the bus terminal extensively and has looked at many possible sites.
“Do you have any alternative ideas of what we could do, anything that crossed your mind?” Pelletier asked Ptacek.
“Like you said, we spent a lot of time on this and a lot of meetings on this,” Ptacek said. “I guess my perspective is different than yours in terms of the immediacy of the decision … what I’m saying is that — price is part of that — but I think it is too quick to make a decision.”
Board member Paula O’Loughlin asked how long the staff has spent looking at possible properties.
“Mr. Bloom started right around the passage of the bond referendum … May of 2015 would be my best estimate,” Hoheisel said. “We have explored 15 in-attendance area sites and three or four that are out of district, too.”
In the past two years, Hoheisel said, the district has worked with two different real estate brokers.
“If we are to pass on this site, what financially are we looking at for the district going forward, not having this bus garage, holding onto these funds and looking for other sites?” asked board member Tom Lehmann. “What will it cost us financially without the bus garage?”
“The longer we go, the higher construction costs go,” Hoheisel said. “So if we are looking at constructing our own facility, what might have been projected in … 2015 is now three years out of date.”
Hoheisel said there’s a lease agreement in place for the current site for this school year.
“We have extended to April 1, 2018,” she said. “I think we could get it until summer of 2018 if we needed it. That land, to the best of my knowledge, is for sale or will be put for sale, which means we would not have that opportunity to lease there anymore. I am not familiar with a site that would be able to accommodate us in a leasing capacity, if not that site.”
“Is there some other reason why we are needing to do this now?” asked board member Sarah Stivland.
Contamination at current site
Hoeppner said the idea to move to a new location was first suggested by Bloom. Hoeppner explained that the leased bus terminal is five acres — smaller than the current needs of the district — and that there are environmental problems at the site.
He said that in August 1995 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did a study of the land where the bus garage is currently located. The results showed a “cancer risk” based on the chemical concentrations within the site.
The study, Hoeppner said, went on to identify six sample locations at the site higher than acceptable concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals that pose a risk for workers at the site. These chemicals were left on the site from previous industrial uses.
“My thought on reading that is, ‘How do we get out of there as quickly as possible?’” Hoeppner said.
Hoeppner suggested using $1.3 million in capital funds generated by the sale of the New Heights school building to offset the increased cost of the proposed Afton bus terminal site. By eliminating the lease funding coming from the district’s general fund, Hoeppner said, the district would break even in about 10 years.
“I get that we would be moving our employees into a facility that is much better healthwise but also a much better facility,” Hoeppner said. “I’m satisfied that we can afford this site and it’s a much better site for our buses and our workers.”
“I’m not opposed to keep looking,” Ptacek said. “Obviously the fact that we are even talking about this tonight will get some publicity and hopefully what is going to happen — if I prevail — is that somebody is going to say I’ve got this wonderful piece of land at a wonderful price and they are going to come forward. That may or may not happen … but as these things go, I don’t think we have been on it that long.”
Issues with zoning
One of the most difficult problems facing the district in its search for a suitable property is how land is zoned by a city or township, and what requirements are in city codes.
There is currently a moratorium in Afton — the city where the proposed property is located — on issuing conditional use permits in industrial-zoned property.
“We have been talking about our industrial zones and various uses for a while,” said Afton city administrator Ron Moorse.
Moorse said the city changed its zoning in April to eliminate exterior storage as a primary use in the industrial zones.
“As we have talked about it, we would like to not have more,” he said. “We would like a more attractive, higher quality industry that creates a better tax base. We are continuing to look at it and working on the process of updating our industrial codes.”
Moorse said the move to put a moratorium on the industrial-zoned property was not in response to the school district’s proposed property purchase.
“We are supportive of what the school district does as our children attend Stillwater schools,” Moorse said. “But at the same time, we need to look at what we want the industrial area to look like in the future.”
Any property that the district purchases for a bus terminal would need to be zoned as an industrial use. That has been a challenge for the district in its search.
“There [is] not a lot of zoned industrial property,” Hoheisel said Aug. 10. “Zoning seemed to be a very large piece of it … size of the property was a consideration, the provisions that a municipality allows for impervious surfaces allowed determines the acreage you have to buy and is that acreage available to us. Can we get all of the employees’ cars and the buses — those were some of the conversations had as it relates to those properties.”
Decision expected in September
“There are not a lot of options and the zoning is a true reality that you have to face,” Pelletier said.
“I’m less decided than when I first came in, because I don’t want to be on our current site. … I’m concerned about the price,” Pearson said. “Is there anything out there? That’s what we don’t know.”
Stivland said she was also interested in continuing the search for a different property.
“I think we could respect the taxpayer and the taxpayer’s money and see if there is a better choice,” Stivland said.
“We can’t say we are going to look for another spot — we have looked for another spot,” Lehmann said. “I don’t know what to do, but I’m not going to sit here and say there is another site out there, because there isn’t another site out there. We have looked, people have said no, we have gone to community meetings, they have all said no. This was our last best chance, and I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, let’s give the money back to the taxpayers.”
The board voted 6-1 — with Hoeppner dissenting — to table the discussion until the September board meeting. The board instructed staff to gather more environmental and pollution information about the current bus terminal site.
Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]