Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Airport site opponents grill officials

Logic of site 13 in Camas County questioned

Express Staff Writer

While the temperature lingered around zero outside, activities inside Fairfield's American Legion hall Monday night almost warmed up to a boil.

More than 200 people, dozens standing, packed the hall to hear Friedman Memorial Airport officials and a team of consultants explain why a new airport is needed to replace the Hailey one, and why a site designated site No. 13 in largely agricultural, sparsely populated Camas County is among the most favored. The proposed site is located about 10 miles east of Fairfield along U.S. Highway 20 at the Camas-Blaine county line.

But Hailey airport manager Rick Baird's standard power point slide and narration presentation quickly gave way to blunt questions about whether Camas County is being treated fairly.

One of the most persistent questioners, Joe Schwarzbach, waved pages from a 1990 airport site study—the so-called Coffman Report—that he said concluded a site closer to Hailey was preferred.

Then, referring to a current set of sites recommended by a citizens site selection committee, Schwarzbach asked:

"What happened to site 3" (in the Bellevue Triangle) that once was high on the list of favored locales for a new airport? "It just went away."

Rising in defense of eliminating site 3, airport consultant Tom Schnetzer, of Minneapolis-based Mead & Hunt, and Friedman Airport Authority chair Mary Ann Mix said site 3 had flaws—such as wetlands and wildlife concerns—that made it unacceptable.

Schnetzer said that site 3, along with most of the other 16 candidate areas, was eliminated "after we gave it a closer look."

That drew unbelieving retorts and cynical laughter from the audience.

Schwarzbach wondered, "Do people in the triangle have more of a voice than us?"

Another member of the audience blurted that "wealthy" residents of the triangle turned out in force to pressure the authority to drop site 3. "Money," she said.

Baird corrected Schwarzbach. He said the never-implemented Coffman study actually preferred an area that is now site 12 in the current study, an area in Blaine County a few miles east of site 13.

Another person wondered if actor and parttime Hailey resident Bruce Willis' offer to donate more than 1,000 acres around site 13 for the airport had influenced the site commission's decision to narrow down 16 possible sites to a handful with No. 13 included.

Schnetzer said the finalist sites have the best potential for building an airport, although he conceded costs of land acquisition would be a favor in a decision.

Quality of life in Camas County clearly was at the heart of questions.

George Martin, who said he once lived in the Bellevue Triangle and had large acreage, drew applause when he said, "Down here (in Camas County) we have a much more pristine environment than what we had there."

Martin said he had the feeling that the Friedman authority had decided on site 13 before meeting with Camas County residents to measure their attitudes.

Turning to the rear of the room, Martin looked at Fairfield Mayor David Hanks and wondered why, as a member of the airport site selection committee, he voted for site 13, but actively opposed development of a housing project in the same general area of site 13.

The mayor didn't respond directly, but said that members of the site selection committee didn't "vote politically" when favoring sites. Hanks voted for site 13.

Many of the questioners seemed unaware that four groups in the county—Camas County, the city of Fairfield, the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce and the area's economic development committee—each has one primary delegate on the site selection committee and one alternate.

Who has the final word on an airport site, another questioner asked?

Mix: The Federal Aviation Administration.

Question: What if we own land and the FAA wants to build an airport on it—will the land be confiscated?

Mix: It could be condemned.

Question: What sort of tax revenues would an airport have for the county?

Mix: If an airport were built in Camas County, a joint Camas-Blaine County entity would be formed to decide. The airport wouldn't be taxed, but private operations on the airport would be. No general taxes would be imposed on taxpayers.

Question: What are the economic benefits?

Mix: Studies show that with about 20 airport employees, an area would have about $93 million in cumulate benefits.

Question: How many miles on a final approach to an airport?

Tony Tezla, Mead & Hunt consultant: 10 miles, although patterns can be dictated by wind and noise abatement conditions. (The eventual site would involve a clear zone of 10 miles from each end of the runway for approaches.)

Question: If 95 percent of us are not in favor of the airport, does that make any difference?

Baird: The Friedman authority and the FAA are interested in local opinion. He invited the audience to attend the site committee's next meeting, at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 25 in the Old Blaine County Courthouse to express opinions.

One of the evening's boldest challenges came from Camas County Fire Chief Wayne Marolf. Standing in the rear of the room, he said that after hearing all the objections to the airport, he wondered why so many Camas County residents don't support the area economically. He said most residents shop in Blaine County, and instead should be supporting their home area.

That drew applause.

Camas County Commission chair Bill Davis, who is on the site selection committee, presided over the meeting and occasionally interrupted spirited verbal fusillades being hurled in the room to restore order.

Toward the end of the meeting, Davis said, "I don't even know whether I want the airport. But I can tell you this—if Blaine decides to build on site 12 (just across the Camas County line), we'll get all the bad benefits and none of the pluses."

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