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Where’s the best place for new school in DL?

The land the Detroit Lakes School District plans on buying on North Tower Road. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

Location, location, location … it’s not just a saying for realtors; it seems to be the hottest topic when talking about the idea of building a new elementary school in Detroit Lakes.

Residents of District 22 will be heading to the polls Nov. 5 to decide whether or not to fund the $59 million dollar bond referendum that will not only build a new K-3 school but will also provide for significant projects within all of the school buildings.

District leaders and board members have held two community informational meetings for people who have questions about the projects, as well as formed a citizens’ steering committee to help form a plan that was truly community-driven.

Throughout that process, which began last year, the most hotly debated topic isn’t whether or not the district needs a new school, but rather, where it should go.

The search

Schools are often called “the heart” of a community where its most treasured little residents spend their days building on their futures.

So when overcrowding within the halls of those schools forces a community to take a long, hard look at the possibility of building for that growth, where should they look?

“We’ve looked at about 30 different parcels around the city,” said Detroit Lakes School Board Member Ladd Lyngaas, who has taken the lead in researching possible land options for the school.

Options have been whittled down, and district leaders have drawn a circle around what they believe to be the best, viable option.

It’s a 40-acre piece of land that sits one and a half miles north on Richwood and Tower Roads.

The location has some shaking their heads in agreement, others shrugging their shoulders and wondering why that place.

Talk throughout the community had a few other locations under the microscope for the project that were eventually ruled out.

The fairgrounds

The Becker County Fairgrounds lies in the middle of Detroit Lakes, right down the road from Little Detroit Lake.

Although under consideration, district leaders did have concerns about the location, given its high water table content near the lake, which would have likely added to the expenses of laying a foundation.

It turned out their concerns were irrelevant.

“Administration talked to somebody on the fair board,” said Lyngaas, “and they were not interested in selling the land.”

That ended that.

North of the soccer fields

Another option district leaders looked into was a chunk of property behind the tech school, north of the soccer fields.

The city-owned land is developed with city sewer and water — an expense the city incurred with the intentions of spurring economic development by laying the groundwork for possible new or expanding businesses.

The city used a federal grant to help with that, and according to city officials, turning around and selling that land would not only force them to scrap their economic development plan but they would also have to give back that grant money, which would be a complicated process.

City officials say they didn’t say they wouldn’t sell the land to the school district, but talks never went very far.

“We were priced out of that option,” said Lyngaas, bluntly.

West Willow

Across from Bergen’s and near the water treatment plant lies an area on West Willow Street that some thought would be a good place for a new school.

The problem was, there are about 15 homes in the way.

Eminent domain has always been an option for the school district, but not a desirable one.

“We don’t want to kick people out of their homes that they may have lived in for years,” said Lyngaas, who says it wouldn’t have made sense economically, either, because they would have had to buy out those homes and do it at a higher-than-market value price to ease ill-will that often comes with eminent domain.

“And not only that, when you’re dealing with eminent domain, it’s such a process that it would have taken two to three years to do it,” he said, indicating that the district would rather not go down that road if it can be helped.

North Washington Ave.

The district’s most desired location to date is right at the end of North Washington Avenue where 80 acres of open land sits.

It’s owned by the Oak Grove Cemetery association, which is accessed off of Highway 59 North.

Lyngass says district officials tried really hard to buy 20 acres on the very east end of that parcel, which he says would still give the cemetery more than enough room to grow for years to come.

“But they just wouldn’t sell it to us,” said Lyngaas, “We went back to them a few times to the point where I think we were starting to make them upset,” he laughed, “because they had already said ‘no.’”

Lyngaas says that spot remains the most desired location, “but we can’t tell them what to do with their land,” he said, adding that because the district is not locked into a location, he hopes the association changes its mind and considers an offer.

Lyngaas says they could evoke eminent domain on the land, “but again, if they don’t want to sell it to us, we don’t want to force them to,” he said, adding that the legal process could also put them another two years out from the project, which would likely affect interest rates as they are expected to climb.

North of Walmart

Land north of Walmart was at one time under consideration, but there were a couple of problems with that site.

“Whether you brought kids in by Highway 10 or 59, you’re locked in by railroad tracks,” said Lyngaas, who says that posed a safety concern, along with the airport that sits only 300 yards from the available land.

“If people could have gotten comfortable with the idea of the school being that close to an airport, it might have worked, but I don’t think that was happening,” said Lyngaas.

The spot

A few months ago, the school district entered into an option-to-buy agreement with Bob Bristlin, a construction company owner who also owns the 40-acre site on Richwood and Tower Roads.

School leaders say after combing through dozens of options over many months, they have determined that this parcel is currently “the best available option.”

The tentative agreement has the school district paying Bristlin $545,000 with $15,000 of it already put down.

Some residents at the informational meetings have expressed concern with the price, as the land has an assessed tax value of $171,800 — a far cry from $545,000.

But, Lyngaas says, it’s important to understand that tax value is not the same as market value and he does not believe Bristlin is “taking advantage of the situation.”

“If you were to look at buying land anywhere within town, you’re going to pay those dollars because it’s commercial development land,” said Lyngaas, “The city paid half a million dollars for that little parcel of land where they built the liquor store. This is commercial or residential development land we’re talking about, not agricultural land.”

Lyngaas also points out that city sewer and water already run right up to Tower Road, which means hook-up expenses will be minimal.

“And to get city sewer and water out somewhere, it costs $974,000 per mile to do so,” he said, adding that that was another factor in eliminating certain outlying land parcels.

Lyngaas says although they only need 20 acres of land to build the school, having those 40 acres will provide flexibility for a 1,000 seat school that will likely be busy.

“It’s nice to have that extra land to be able to design parking lots and bus drop offs and do things the best way we can so we don’t have the same mess we have at the Middle School and Roosevelt,” said Lyngaas.

“So if we can have different entrances off of Richwood Road for parents and off of Tower Road for buses, then we don’t have those safety concerns that we have of mixing parent drop-off with bus traffic.”

Another feature the district likes about this land is a strip of natural habitat adjacent to it that Bristlin donated to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department with trails and “outdoor classroom” opportunities for students.

Lyngaas says although district officials are confident this would be a great location for a school, he points out that nothing is locked in yet and won’t be until after the outcome of the election.

“So if somebody knows of a piece of land somewhere around town that we have overlooked, we encourage them to let us know,” said Lyngaas.

There is a map on the district website under “School Bond Election Information” which shows plots that were under consideration with an indication as to why they were ruled out.