Rochester Public Schools Referendum Forum

Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz speaks in September during a forum on the upcoming Rochester Public Schools Referendum. With approval of the referendum, the district is seeking to annex property in Southwest Rochester for a new middle school. (Post Bulletin file photo)

Rochester Public Schools hasn’t ruled out accepting a proposed land donation in Northwest Rochester.

“If somebody wants to give us land and it’s maybe, in this case, something we can turn into an elementary school, we would accept that,” RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz said Tuesday.

However, he said the proposed donation won’t work for the creation of a new middle school.

The potential donation was made public last week, when Rochester City Administrator Steve Rymer sent Muñoz a letter, which included encouragement to consider the offer.

This week, Mark Kramer, an Iowa-based developer who has tackled various Rochester projects, revealed that he had offered the district up to 40 acres on approximately 500 acres he owns north of Valleyhigh Drive Northwest, between 50th and 60th avenues.

The land appears to be largely farmland sitting within city boundaries.

“The portion of ground that is offered to the Rochester Public Schools is the land most readily available with utilities for sewer and water, with the goal in mind that they would be able to start building the school as soon as possible,” Kramer’s Chief Operating Officer Diane Hoey stated in the announcement of the proposed donation location, which was reportedly made on Oct. 3.

Hoey said the land would need to be appraised before a value of the potential donation could be determined.

The amount of land offered is also twice as large as what Muñoz identified in a response letter of Rymer last week.

On Tuesday, the school superintendent said his conversation with Kramer was brief, and it wasn’t confirmed until this week that the donation could include a full 40 acres.

“No formal offer was given,” he said. “It was a quick phone conversation."

City Council member Michael Wojcik said he questions whether enough review has been done, regarding the proposed donation. He posted on his blog Tuesday that he wants city staff to conduct further evaluation of the proposed northwest site, asking for information on utility availability, transportation infrastructure and how it meets state requirements for a school site.

"I also have a question in to our team, as it appears that the joint analysis had recommended this site as the top site for consideration," he wrote.

Kevin Holm, an architect with Duluth-based LHB Inc., said his company has looked at options related to the land offered by Kramer, but none would work for a middle school, largely based on location.

He said sites outlined in different maps pose varying concerns related to anticipated road construction costs, topography and wetlands, but all were ultimately too close to the school district’s western boundary, which is located approximately a half-mile east of 60th Avenue Northwest at Valleyhigh Drive.

“It is possible to live in the city of Rochester and be in the Byron School District,” Holm said of existing boundaries.

He said being close to the school district boundary would limit the number of middle school students who would be able to walk to the school, even after the area is developed.

However, Holm said the same concerns might not deter the school district from building an elementary school at the proposed northwest site, since it would have fewer students and anticipated walking distances are shorter for younger students.

“It’s still not an ideal site for an elementary school, but we are still trying to assess whether or not it makes sense to look at it from that perspective,” he said.

Hoey said Kramer’s offer is intended for a middle school to address the school district’s immediate needs. “If they have a different plan, we would be willing to discuss it with the district,” she said.

While the district’s planned southwest site sits outside existing city boundaries, it is deeper into the school district, offering greater potential for future walkability.

Holm, however, said the district's support of the site isn’t based on future development.

“The building being built is for growth that has already happened,” he said, noting that information comes from city and county development data.

Rymer and other city officials have raised concerns regarding the request to annex the southwest site into the city, noting it could spur development that would tax limited infrastructure and alter the city’s plans for future sewer needs.

Holm said that doesn’t need to be the case, since the city has the opportunity to deny future development in the area based on the city’s updated comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan has already altered the district’s proposal.

The district has a $2.9 million purchase agreement for 150 acres of land commonly known as Hart Farms, which is along 40th Street Southwest, west of 18th Avenue. Instead of seeking to annex the entire parcel, the district is asking the city to accept 80 acres, which are within boundaries considered for expansion by 2040 under the comprehensive plan.

The proposed purchase would be funded through the recently approved $180.9 million voter-approved bond referendum.

The proposed annexation of the southwest 80 acres is slated to be reviewed by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission on March 11 and the City Council on April 6.

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