School plan (copy)

An early outline of a potential site shows how property in Southwest Rochester could eventually house three schools. For now, Rochester Public School is only seeking to develop a middle school on 37 acres of the site, which it holds an option to purchase. 

Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz says a land donation offered in October falls short of needs for a new middle school.

“First, the area is less than half a mile from the west district boundary,” he stated in a letter, responding to City Administrator Steve Rymer. Rymer had cited the donation in an earlier letter this week regarding plans to seek annexation of approximately 80 acres southwest of Rochester.

Rymer’s letter encourages the school district to keep options open regarding the proposed donation.

Muñoz said the offered land, which is less than a mile from Gibbs Elementary School, also faces development challenges.

“The developer offered the district 20 acres,” he wrote. “This size, along with the obstacles previously named, lends itself to a suitable area for an elementary school but not a middle school. The district would need more than 40 acres to meet the needs of a middle school, again due to the topography, streams, and wetland-like areas at this specific location.”

In December, Kevin Holm, a school district consultant with Duluth-based LHB, Inc. said Minnesota Department of Education guidelines call for a middle school site to be at least 25 acres with an additional acre per 100 students. That would require 37 acres for the planned school.

He noted the guidelines come with some flexibility, but the state would likely question plans for a smaller Rochester site.

“In a case like this, where the department knows there are sites that are available, that will meet requirements, they are going to push harder to ask why it should be a smaller site,” he said.

In his letter, Rymer pushed back on the district’s proposal, noting it causes potential problems for the city, but officials continue to be willing to work on finding a solution.

“We want to make sure the goals of the school district and the goals of the city can be achieved,” he said Thursday.

The school district is hoping to build on the land commonly known as Hart Farms, located along 40th Street Southwest. It has a $2.9 million purchase agreement for 150 acres, which would be funded through the recently approved $180.9 million voter-approved bond referendum.

Annexation is only being sought on 80 acres of the property.

Rymer noted in his letter to Muñoz that the city’s Community Development Department staff doesn’t support annexation of the site for a middle school due to potential development pressures.

“As public stewards, it is our obligation to promote growth and development in a manner that is both fiscally responsible and consistent with the comprehensive plan that was designed without residents and adopted by the City Council,” he wrote.

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

Among the concerns with the proposed annexation are creating development pressures at the edge of the city; potential changes to sewer, water and electrical needs in the area; cost of adding public facilities; and potential changes to transit plans.

“As has been previously communicated to your team, the city is not supportive of development of this site based upon the lack of infrastructure and growth management concerns,” Rymer wrote to Muñoz. “As our team continues to evaluate this (annexation) request, we will be guided by the city’s recently adopted comprehensive plan.”

The plan shows the 80-acre area could be considered for potential city expansion by 2040. Rymer noted a plan for sewer infrastructure to the area hasn’t been approved.

The potential for development changes to follow school construction was highlighted Wednesday, when members of the Olmsted County Housing and Redevelopment Agency were discussing options for future housing development.

“If the school district goes through on 40th, there is going to be land available,” County Commissioner Gregg Wright said during a discussion of potential housing development during a meeting of the HRA administrative committee.

Rymer said he sees that as a key concern if a school is added to the area.

“It’s absolutely a catalyst for either intentionally inducing growth or adding pressure to the area,” he said.

Muñoz pointed to the fact that growth already is being seen in southern Rochester.

“City leadership recommends building the middle school in the northwest; despite the last 10 years of community growth in the southern area,” he wrote. “This growth drove the immediate need for a middle school in the south.”

In December, Holm said northwest sites had limitations for the district.

“We have looked at other northwest sites,” he said. “There’s not a good plan B in the northwest because of boundaries and issues of busing students.”

This week, Muñoz echoed the point.

“For more than three months, the district and city staff have been working to identify a middle school location, in both Southwest and Northwest Rochester, that meets the criteria for both entities, such as capacity, walkability, student demographics, topography, and the (city’s comprehensive plan),” he wrote. “The district believes the best site to meet the current needs of our students is the Hart Farms land.”

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