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Skydiving contract still up in the air
Dec. 24, 2012

Winsted Township residents jump into the discussion

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

WINSTED, MN – With the contract between the city of Winsted and Westside Skydivers set to expire in one week, affected parties from every side have been stepping forward – all hoping the new agreement will be better than the last.

However, “better” seems to look different from the vantage points of the Winsted City Council, Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson, and nearby landowners.

“We want to keep the business in town, but we need to be fair and consistent,” Mayor Steve Stotko said during Tuesday’s city council work session.

According to City Administrator Brad Martens, issues pertaining to turf damage, hours of operation, equipment storage on airport property, aircraft noise, additional city staff time, and the use of the airport arrival/departure building have arisen since Westside Skydivers opened in 2010.

The past several months, Martens and Johnson have been attempting to develop a contract that will address these issues in a reasonable manner.

“We are very close on an agreement,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “There are a few minor things Brad and I are working on.”

Missing the target
At both the council meeting and the work session, residents of Winsted Township voiced their opinions about the skydiving operation. One recurring topic involved jumpers who miss their target, and land on private property.

“They’re not even close to hitting the airport. They’re off by two miles sometimes,” said Loren Kieser, who lives on Cable Avenue.

Mike Laxen said he was out grilling hamburgers in July when a skydiver landed in his grain field near Dairy Avenue.

“He didn’t really do a whole lot of damage,” Laxen said.

Damage did occur when a jumper landed in James Baird’s field, however. Baird had been renting the field out to another farmer, and the parachute ended up getting caught in the combine.

“I talked to Joe, and he was very nice about it,” Baird said.

Insurance covered the damage, but Baird said Westside Skydivers’ insurance adjuster later called to say the company isn’t required to pay for that type of incident.

“If that happens next year, whose insurance is going to cover it?” Baird asked. “That was $11,000, plus the time he was laid up.”

Baird said he understands Johnson has a business to run, but it is affecting other people’s businesses.

“If this keeps up, I’m not going to get any decent rent – this is my livelihood, too,” he said, adding that parachutes have also damaged his cornfields.

Council Member Bonnie Quast asked Johnson if it is difficult to land in the target area.

“On occasion it’s tough,” Johnson answered. “We go off of forecasted winds a lot. It’s a calculation, and for every 10 miles per hour of wind, it’s a quarter-mile further away. I’ve compensated farmers for crop damage and whatnot. We do apologize, and we do our best not to, but it does happen.”

Too low?
Plane altitude was another concern residents expressed Tuesday evening.

“I’m not happy about it; it’s taken away the quality of life for my family,” said Jeff Hanson, who lives one mile from the west end of the runway. “I don’t know what the altitude’s supposed to be in that area, but I think it’s too low.”

Johnson said he tries to appease landowners who call him about noise, and that his pilots would not fly under required altitudes.

“I have not yet had one FAA safety violation,” he said.

Former airport commission member Glenn Weibel said Westside Skydivers needs to take more safety measures, however. He also suggested that the skydiving operation’s user fees be based on a percentage of gross sales.

“A small airport like this is made for recreational flying,” Winsted Township resident Glenn Ehrke said. “Joe’s business has turned it very commercial.”

One township resident, Jerry Gray, defended the skydiving operation.

“I support Westside Skydivers. I enjoy seeing them climb over my residence,” he said, adding that he is a pilot who often flies into Winsted’s airport.

New contract for Jan. 2
In the past, Westside Skydivers paid $4,500 annually for the use of the airport drop zone, an amount that Martens said was not enough to recoup the city’s costs.

“We’re actually subsidizing Joe’s business, and I don’t think we should get into that,” Stotko said.

At the Dec. 4 work session, Martens suggested using a formula in which the fee would be 1.5 percent of 80 percent of gross sales. This means that a business making $1 million, for example, would pay $12,000.

The council plans to present a contract for approval at the Wednesday, Jan. 2 council meeting.

“We’ve been very fair,” Council Member George Schulenberg said. “If he doesn’t want to shake our hand, he doesn’t want to shake our hand.”

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