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City OKs county's plan for courthouse

The Douglas County Board's plan to remodel the courthouse received a green light from the Alexandria City Council Monday night.

The council approved a preliminary planned unit development, a zoning district amendment and a conditional use permit for the work.

The project will expand the courts' holding facility, relocate the sheriff's office, demolish the old Central School pool and expand the adjacent parking area.

The project isn't without controversy. At a planning commission hearing on July 19, three residents on Elm and Cedar streets expressed concerns about parking.

They said that county employees are parking in front of their houses, closer to the courthouse, instead of using lots that are designated for the employees.

The employees, the residents said, also park illegally by using the one-hour stalls for four or five hours. The employees also take up the diagonal parking on 8th Avenue across from the jail, leaving few places for the public to park.

The planning commission noted that the parking problem is an enforcement issue, not a zoning problem. It voted unanimously to recommend the project. County commissioner Norm Salto was advised to bring the parking concerns to the county board.

City Planner Mike Weber told the council that a key factor in the commission's decision was that the project conforms to the city's comprehensive plan, which recommends that governmental services and buildings continue to be located within reach of the downtown business district.

"This is an example of working with the county and encouraging them to stay in the city," Weber said.

The county courthouse/government center has long been inadequately served by off-street parking despite the county's best efforts to create parking areas for employees and the public, according to city officials.

Right now, there are 325 parking spaces, which is only a little more than half of what is required under the city's ordinances. After the building expansions, the parking spaces will increase to 371 spaces and the required parking will still fall short by about the same percentage.

The project is scheduled to be done in the following phases:

•Phase 1 (2010) - remove the six-stall parking area at the south end of the existing jail/courts facility and build a new two-story courts' holding facility.

This phase, estimated to cost about $2 million, is the only one that the county board has approved so far. The vote was 4-1 on July 13 (Commissioner Paul Anderson voted against it).

•Phase 2 (2011) - demolish the old pool and construct an additional 77-space parking lot expansion.

•Phase 3 (2012) - demolish the existing 25-stall parking area on the north end of the jail-courts facility and expand that building to house a relocated sheriff's office.

•Phase 4 (2016) - remodel the existing sheriff's office/jail annex (the former Central School).

The city approved the project with two conditions - building and erosion control permits are required, and any exterior lighting must be hooded and directed away from public streets.

Council rejects

recommendation to give work to

non-local firm

Another highlight of Monday's meeting began as a routine agenda item to pay an engineering and environmental consulting firm $13,454 to compile an inventory of all stormwater retention ponds in the city.

Two council members, Sara Carlson and Cindy Bigger, opposed the recommendation from the city's stormwater committee to hire an out-of-town firm when an Alexandria company, Design Tree Engineering, submitted the lowest proposal to do the work - $12,000.

Bigger said that accepting a higher proposal from a non-local company "flies in the face" of everything the city has talked about in recent years.

Carlson noted that Assistant City Administrator Marty Schultz said that all six companies who submitted requests for proposals (RFPs) were capable of doing the project. "If a local firm is able to do the job, I don't see the logic [of not giving it the work]." Carlson said.

Schultz said that city staff didn't make its decision lightly. He said staff and the committee considered many factors and decided that Edmonds and Oliver presented the best proposal.

The company has completed two similar projects, appeared to have the best grasp of the work involved and expressed a willingness to verify all of the information collected for the inventory, Schultz said.

Carlson said that a local firm could gain expertise if the city hired it to do the work, plus it would employ local people.

Carlson made a motion to refer the proposals back to the stormwater committee and have the three lowest bidders present more information.

After the council unanimously approved the motion, Mayor Dan Ness, who does not vote, appeared to disagree with the council's decision. He said he was tired of the council ignoring the advice of its committees. He told city staff to invite the firms to a council meeting so council members could interview them themselves.

The retention pond study is required by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The city has until June 30, 2011 to determine who owns the retention ponds in the city and who is responsible for cleaning them out.

Later in the meeting, City Attorney John Lervick told the council that it must disregard whether a company submitting a bid or RFP is local or non-local. He said the city must go with the most responsible bidder who meets the requirements. "Local can never be a criteria," he said.

Bid accepted for

South Broadway

sewer project

In other action, the council:

•Accepted a bid of $139,901 from R.L. Larson Excavating of St. Cloud for a sanitary sewer extension on South Broadway.

The bid, the lowest of seven received, was less than the city's estimate of $144,307.

The work will extend the sewer on South Broadway from 34th Avenue (the southeast corner of Viking Plaza) about 1,200 feet to the south. It will serve a new housing development, Lakewood Terrace.

Negotiations to

begin for land near Lake Darling

•Authorized city staff to begin negotiating with 51 property owners to acquire right of way for a waterline extension project on the north side of Lake Darling.

Lervick requested the action. He said this could eventually clear the way for the city to begin eminent domain proceedings against any property it is unable to obtain.

He added, however, that he expects the negotiations to go smoothly since most of the easements are small and no structures are involved.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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