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Duluth Edison shelves high school plans, for now

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An aerial view from 2015 looking north over North Star Academy and UnitedHealthcare in Duluth. Duluth Edison has proposed building a new high school northwest of North Star Academy. Bob King / 2 / 2

Duluth Edison Charter Schools' plan to build a new high school in Duluth has been placed on hold, at least for now.

Edison's chosen developer, Pacific Education Partners, had filed an appeal with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources after the Duluth Planning Commission voted 4-1 last July to reject its proposal to build a school on the southern edge of Snowflake Nordic Ski Center off Rice Lake Road. City staff and commissioners cited concerns about the project's potential impact on local wetlands.

While the would-be developer began the appeal process, it was placed on hold soon after, said Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services.

"We received a citizen petition for an environmental assessment worksheet, and that pre-empts the Board of Water and Soil Resources wetlands plan appeal," he explained, citing a document circulated by Will Munger Jr. and signed by 114 concerned citizens.

Then, on Thursday, the city received notice that the developer had withdrawn its appeal.

Paul Goossens, president of Tischer Creek Duluth Building Co. — the nonprofit that owns Duluth Edison's school buildings and leases them to the group — confirmed the withdrawn appeal Friday. Idaho-based Pacific Education Partners had expected to serve as the developer and project manager during construction of the proposed new high school, turning it over to Tischer Creek upon completion.

As a result of the withdrawn appeal, Hamre said the city will halt plans to conduct an EAW.

"There is no project at this point," he explained.

Hamre said he has been told that Edison will be considering all its options, including other potential locations for a school

"So they are kind of starting from square one, and their project may be there or it may not," he said.

"Essentially it takes the entire application back off the table," Goossens said.

Goossens said Edison and Tischer Creek board members have not yet had an opportunity to respond to the recent developments with the project.

"We don't have any specific information about next steps... but the objective remains," he said.

"We're stepping back to really reassess where we are — what we want to do, where we want to do it and that sort of thing," Goossens said.

"We're going to start from scratch with a new plan in possibly a new place. Those are all unknowns. But that does not preclude us from putting together a new plan, and I anticipate that at some point in time in the future that we will have something that we will be bringing back to the city," he said.

Hamre said that Edison is free to bring forward another proposal at any time, but if it involves the same site by Snowflake, an EAW will be required because of the petition the city has already received.

"I wouldn't make the citizens go back through and do another petition," he said. "They've already indicated their concerns about the area and concern about the headwaters of Chester Creek and stormwater flow and its impacts on that stream.

"They've raised some concerns that would need to be studied and researched through the EAW process. So if they continue to propose something in that same general area, then we're just going to require that an EAW be done," Hamre said.

Munger did not return repeated messages left on his home voicemail this week.

Goossens said Edison remains committed to addressing any environmental concerns. Therefore, he characterized the prospect of having to complete an EAW as "not a pertinent variable."

"I think through some of the conversations in the community there were some concerns raised about environmental impacts there at the site. So we view this as an opportunity for us to cooperate and say, 'We're really committed to do this in an environmentally sustainable and appropriate manner.' We're happy to document that in any way that we need to," he said.

Initial plans had called for Edison to open its first high school in Duluth by the fall of 2017, but that timeline had been pushed back considerably — before this week's developments — in light of delays associated with obtaining needed approvals and permits.

"We've kind of learned. We're not calendar-based any more," Goossens said.

"Obviously our deal is to open a school in sync with your traditional school calendar, so there are windows of opportunity that are ideal. There's no doubt about that. But in terms of when we'll be ready — it's going to be when it's going to be. There are some of these regulatory and process issues that push the timing outside of our control. We're doing everything we're able to do and can do to cooperate and provide what's requested of us," Goossens said.

He noted that the Duluth Edison school board's resolve to open a high school in Duluth has not wavered, "so my role with Tischer Creek is to continue to work diligently toward that."

Duluth Edison had proposed a $25 million project, including a two-story, 100,000 square-foot building, 330 parking spots and a track and athletic field.

Goossens said the initially proposed site's close proximity to North Star Academy, another Duluth Edison school, and the access it would provide to the surrounding natural area helped make it particularly attractive.

Last year Duluth Edison made a $14.2 million offer for the Duluth school district's former Central High School building. But the Duluth School Board rejected that offer, citing a policy that restricts sales to other K-12 competition.