The St. Paul Planning Commission on Friday approved a variance to city river-corridor standards and a site plan that would allow the Metropolitan Airports Commission to build a floodwall between St. Paul's downtown airport and the Mississippi River.
By a vote of 15 to 4, the 19 commissioners at Friday's meeting approved both measures, which have been stridently debated for more than a year. It is likely the last major bureaucratic hurdle the project will have to clear.
But opposition is likely to continue, however.
Environmentalists say that the dike will adversely affect the river and that neighbors fear having flood protection will promote increased operations at the airport and lead to more noise. The airport serves mostly corporate aviation — 3M has a hangar there — and is home to a fleet of Army National Guard helicopters.
The MAC says it has addressed the environmental issues and notes the airport is projected to grow with or without the dike. Airport officials also said its runways are not and cannot be made long enough to serve cargo planes, as some opponents charged.
There have been doubts about money for the project, but MAC Executive Director Jeff Hamiel said Friday the airports commission committed to an additional $13 million for the project this week.
"All the funding is in place," Hamiel said. He thought the project, already under way as the MAC improves underground drainage at the riverside airport, would take three years to complete.
"This is an important step forward in working to protect a valuable asset for the Saint Paul/east metro area," said a statement issued by St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Larry Dowell. The chamber has joined labor unions and the MAC in supporting the dike. "The airport has been part of the community for decades, and today's vote will advance the plan to keep it a viable resource for years to come," the statement said.
Opponents say they'll continue to press for answers to questions, such as who owns a stretch of riverbank to be excavated for the project and how noise from the airport will affect surrounding property.
Planning Commissioner Stephen Gordon, who led opposition on the panel, questioned the wisdom of having a dike at all. "I can't accept that anyone is going to spend $45 million to protect a facility that is going to close down 148 days over 41 years," Gordon said, citing floods since 1965.
Hokan Miller, a member of the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River, said other businesses had to cope with the effects of high water and thought the airport should do the same. "They're just trying to push the costs of flooding out onto the biological function of the river," Miller said.
Former City Council Member Tom Dimond vowed to keep up opposition to the dike. "There will be an appeal," said Dimond, who lives under one of the airport's flight paths.
An appeal would likely put the matter before the City Council in the next 10 days. The council then would set a public hearing and vote on the appeal afterward, with a final decision due by April 28.
Early indications are that there could be support on the City Council to overturn the Planning Commission, but only on a 4-3 vote. If Mayor Chris Coleman vetoed that council decision, then it does not appear there would be enough council support to override the veto and block the project.
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