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Duluth Planning Commission to assess red plan

The pace at which the Duluth school district's red plan can move forward is -- at least temporarily -- in the city of Duluth's hands. Prompted by a petition seeking an environmental study of the $293 million long-range building plan, the state ha...

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The pace at which the Duluth school district's red plan can move forward is -- at least temporarily -- in the city of Duluth's hands.

Prompted by a petition seeking an environmental study of the $293 million long-range building plan, the state has turned the question over to the city of Duluth.

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board considers Duluth the responsible government unit to resolve the issue, said acting Duluth Planning Director Keith Hamre. The city administration assigned the task to the Planning Commission because of its experience with similar studies, Hamre said.

The Planning Commission will hold a special meeting April 23 to consider whether an environmental assessment worksheet is needed for the sites affected by the school district's long-range plan.

The assessment would study the possible environmental and socioeconomic effects of construction. Loss of wildlife habitat, a decrease in water quality for tributaries flowing to the lake and increased pollution are cited as reasons for the study in a petition signed by 72 Duluth residents and submitted by Fayth Glass.

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"I've heard very little discussion about the environmental issues [of the red plan]," said Glass, who is married to Duluth School Board member Gary Glass.

Duluth Superintendent Keith Dixon said Wednesday he doesn't expect this latest development to delay the plan.

"We believe we understand the statutes and that our program will continue to move forward," Dixon said. "Certainly we will let the city Planning Department take a look at this, and we'll deal with whatever decision they make when they make it."

The Planning Commission first must decide whether the red plan constitutes one big project or a collection of individual projects, said Gregg Downing, environmental review coordinator for the Environmental Quality Board.

If the Planning Commission decides it's one big project, it will surpass the 400,000-square-foot threshold for whether an environmental assessment is required.

The School Board earlier had asked the Environmental Quality Board whether a review was needed, said Kerry Leider, facilities manager for the school district. Because the district sees the plan as a collection of individual projects, the district believes a review isn't required.

"I think we initially looked at the environment and believed it was too small," Leider said.

If the Planning Commission votes to require an environmental worksheet, the school would hire a consultant to complete the study, Hamre said. It could take three months to complete.

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The Planning Commission also could decide later that a more-complex environmental impact statement is needed. That undertaking could take nine to 12 months and cost at least $100,000 in consulting fees, Downing estimated.

"Something like this isn't as technical as an oil refinery, but there's enough parts to it that it could get pretty pricey," Downing said.

Dixon said he was confident in the steps the district already has taken to ensure minimal environmental impact from the long-range plan.

"We have always been committed to looking at these projects with the highest level of environmental standards anyway," Dixon said. "We've talked about using green buildings and all of that."

Anyone who disagrees with how the Planning Commission votes can file an appeal in St. Louis County District Court but must do so within 30 days of the decision, Downing said.

New Tribune staff writer Sarah Horner contributed to this report.

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