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Sanford Field’s future is up in the air

New owner's plans for Hillsboro dairy may lead to airport closing or becoming a private use facility

POSTED January 22, 2016 11:56 a.m.

The Hillsboro City Council Jan. 18 voted to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Land O’Lakes that could affect the long-term future of Joshua Sanford Field.

City Administrator Adam Sonntag reported to the Council during its regular monthly meeting that a sale of the Hillsboro Riverview Dairy facility on E. Madison St. is pending, but zoning issues have arisen that are creating difficulties with the purchaser’s development plans.

Land O’Lakes representative John Kennedy said that the Minnesota-based agricultural cooperative wants to expand the facility, currently owned by Alcam Creamery of Richland Center,  to produce and store more butter.

Kennedy added that Hillsboro Riverview Dairy is a good fit for Land O’Lakes, and that the company is “impressed” with the plant’s workforce.

Currently, 25 workers are employed at the facility, which Kennedy said has been closed since Jan. 13 for cleaning, painting and safety painting.

However, Land O’Lakes’ planned addition would fall into a runway protection zone where, according to the Bureau of Aeronautics, the city is supposed to limit traffic at Sanford Field because of the possibility of accidents involving the single-engine airplanes that take off and land there.

Sonntag said that the city has two options available to it: Either close the public use airport entirely, or convert it to a private airport that could be used only by members of a flying club.

Under the latter option, the city would lease Sanford Field for at least 10 years to the proposed club, which would have to follow rules regarding the airport’s use.

Aviation enthusiasts who are not Hillsboro residents would be able to join the club.

However, should the city privatize the airport, it would lose eligibility for state funding to make any needed repairs at Sanford Field, located northeast of the central business district.

Sonntag said the city, as owner of Sanford Field, spends money each year to maintain the airport, though he did not give an exact figure.

If the city elects to close Sanford Field, it would maintain ownership of the land on which the airport sits, but the property could never again be used as an airport.

In addition, the city would have to return to state government in Madison any funding it has received to maintain Sanford Field.

Mayor Greg Kubarski said that though he is not in favor of losing the airport, the Hillsboro Riverview Dairy has to expand in order to grow the city’s tax base.

Kennedy added that purchasing Hillsboro Riverview would not be viable without the planned expansion, because the facility in its current form would not be valuable to the cooperative, which also has animal feed  manufacturing facilities in Union Center and Mauston, as well as a cheese plant in Kiel.

Land O’Lakes is one of the largest producers of cheese and butter in the United States. Its butter has won the ChefsBest award for Best Taste.

Should Land O’Lakes, which has grown in recent years through acquisitions including the Union Center facility in late 2014, it would pay the city $1.5 million.

Local aviator and businessman Henry Peterson said he had never heard of a flying club like the one Sonntag described.

The administrator said such a club would need to be organized and governed according to bylaws.

Peterson and another longtime aviation enthusiast, Paul Richardson, engaged Kennedy and Council members in discussion regarding the necessity of closing Sanford Field’s Runway 5 to plane landings, saying  the move–which is included in a covenant in the memorandum of understanding–would “castrate” the airport by making some landings on its other runways hazardous, if not impossible, due to windy weather conditions.

Kennedy said Land O’Lakes requested the covenant, saying the language was important for safety purposes to prevent the possibility of aircraft crashing into the building.

Both Peterson and Richardson, as well as Council member and attorney W. Garth Hitselberger, argued for the inclusion of language in the draft of the memorandum Sonntag presented to the Council  for discussion that would allow pilots to use Runway 5 for landings in the interest of safety if and when the need arises.

Kennedy said Land O’Lakes is “not closed-minded” about the matter, and that the language in the draft memorandum of understanding is “open to review.”

At that point, Kubarski closed discussion and called for a motion to vote on the memorandum.

Six of the seven Council members present–Rick Hanke, Hitselberger, Tom Hotek, Mark Lankey,   Darrow Novy, and Randy Seeley–voted to accept the memorandum. Elizabeth Parish abstained.

Kennedy said that any building on the Hillsboro Riverview property is unlikely to occur until spring.

In the meantime, the city has three months to decide if Sanford Field will close permanently or convert to a private use airport.

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