OWATONNA — As residents raise flooding concerns at the site of the proposed new Owatonna High School, the school district and the City of Owatonna seek to assuage doubts prior to a Nov. 5 bond referendum that will determine the fate of the planned building.
After choosing the site — located at the southeast corner of town — out of three possible locations, district officials say that in terms of cost and pre-existing conditions, they feel they’ve selected the best parcel. After a May referendum failed by 1% of the vote, the district has cut the overall amount that it is asking from $116 million to $104 million for the upcoming election.
The other two options were located on the north end of town, which Community Development Director Troy Klecker said would have each necessitated new roads or utility lines. Superintendent Jeff Elstad added that, with the middle school already on the north end of town, the site will hopefully balance out traffic and busing.
Ultimately, the district selected the 88-acre parcel — located along 18th Street SE near the Bixby Road intersection — last week, in partnership with both city, county and private engineers from BKBM, a Minneapolis-based firm. The land, which will be purchased by Federated Insurance and donated to the district, is currently a part of the Rypka farm.
After the district announced its decision last week, historic stormwater issues led some residents to question the site’s viability and a few neighbors have commented on the Owatonna People’s Press Facebook page wondering how record rainfalls will impact the area going forward.
“Technically, there is a floodplain that runs through there,” said Klecker, of a ditch that cuts through the southeastern portion of the Rypkas’ farm.
Back in the mid- to late 2000s, flooding in adjacent developed areas led the Rypka family to donate two of the northwestern-most acres of their land to the city for a retention pond. At that time, the city also enlarged the storm sewers, and both city staff and a few nearby homeowners have noted that flooding has gotten much better since these additional measures were put in circa 2010.
“It’s been a world of difference. It’s much better. For where we live, we see no flooding,” said area resident Cindy Pheifer.
She noted the biggest difference she’s seen has been less standing water in the streets.
Klecker also said that the building itself will be placed away from the ditch, close to 18th Street at the north end of the site.
“When we have floodplain in the community — and we have a ton of floodplain in the community — from a city planning perspective, [the question] is always, ‘How do we best use that space and not just let it sit there?’” Klecker said. “What typically happens is that it becomes parkland, and we put green space and recreational space around it.”
In this case, he said this would mean using the area around the ditch for the high school’s practice fields. Director of Facilities Bob Olson noted that this is typical with other high schools: the lowest elevation points on their grounds are used for outdoor practice facilities.
Klecker said other development potentials for the space would likely consist of more impervious surface abutting the ditch.
“If this wasn’t developed as a high school, it would likely be developed as single-family residential. As that development creeps up closer to the floodplain, then we’d run into a lot more concern.”
Still, the proposed high school — including all the necessary paved driveways and parking lots — would be adding a fair amount of new impervious surface to the space which will need to be addressed by additional drainage improvements.
“Any building that goes up has to meet the code specifications that are there, and certainly stormwater retention is one of those codes,” said Elstad.
“Storm requirements say you can only release water at the same rate it was prior to construction,” added Klecker. He said this will mean installing another stormwater retention pond or looking into other drainage options.
“When they get into designing a specific plan, an engineer is going to have to put the stormwater plan together,” he added. “An engineer will have to do a study, do the calculation of how much stormwater is coming off the impervious surface, which way the water is running out and how to get that retained.”
Management options could include additional ponds, or new underground storage and sewers. Which methods will be used has yet to be determined, and will come with additional design work if the referendum passes and voters approve construction of the new school.
Olson and Klecker said that all estimated costs for stormwater management have been incorporated into the requested bond and that, overall, the southeastern parcel made more sense to the district than areas in the north and even western parts of town.
“There were some sites on the north end that were going to require some road extensions and utility extensions which would have added to the cost,” noted Klecker. He also added that putting the high school near the industrial and commercial areas on the west side of town would have made land acquisition more expensive and prevented commercial tax dollars from going back into the community.
Residents will be able to vote on the new proposal next month.