Friday, April 15, 2005

Airport site search thrown into turmoil

After reversing field, board has second thoughts on Triangle study

Express Staff Writer

Hemmed in by state Highway 75 and the Woodside residential area on the east, the costs?not to mention the political and social fallout?of upgrading the Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey to FAA standards would be staggering, according to a consultants' report presented this week to the airport authority board. Photo by David N. Seelig

The search for a possible new airport site was thrown into turmoil this week when the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority reversed field on whether to study sites in the Bellevue Triangle to replace the aging Hailey aiport, only to be faced with the possibility of a second decision that might reverse the first reversal.

Within less than 24 hours:

· The airport authority voted 4-0 (chair Martha Burke only votes to break ties) Tuesday night to order a complete study of sites No. 3, 4 and 5 in the Triangle, thereby reversing an earlier decision several months ago to ignore the Triangle because of environmental and terrain issues and focus on more distant sites.

· Then, after Friedman Manager Rick Baird told the board that launching a new Triangle site review would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and delay the site selection decision by 60 to 90 days, second thoughts set in. On Wednesday, Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael, who as a member of the site committee voted with north Blaine County business interests to review Triangle sites, "pulled back my support immediately."

"We don't want to spend a lot of money on a site we know doesn't meet the comprehensive plan or zoning," Michael told the Mountain Express. Blaine County and the city of Hailey "own" Friedman Memorial and appoint members to the airport authority.

Thereafter, County Commissioner Tom Bowman, an airport authority member, told the Mountain Express on Thursday that he'll tell North Blaine County business and resort leaders today that unless they can "provide objective, not subjective" proof that "the economy will collapse completely without an airport" in the Triangle, the authority will abandon any new study of the area as futile.

However, that leaves the question of the motion adopted Tuesday night ordering the new study.

"I haven't decided," Bowman said, on how he would handle that. However, airport attorney Barry Luboviski said the authority could call a special meeting with 24 hours public notice and rescind its motion.

The airport authority's decision to revisit the Triangle sites came after intense pressure from resort and business interests that assert any distant airport would discourage travelers and thus impair air carrier operations. Seven of 24 site selection committee members voted at the group's March meeting to ask reconsideration of the Triangle.

However, as they voted Tuesday night to apply the same criteria to a study of the Triangle as other sites, it seemed clear the authority's members had other motives. Each said Triangle sites would prove to be not acceptable, but a study would silence Sun Valley-Ketchum groups that insist the sites are viable.

Three sites out of an original 16 have been designated for intense study as finalists in the search: site No. 13, east of Fairfield inside Camas County alongside U.S. Highway 20; site No. 10, east of state Highway 75 and south of U.S. 20 near Timmerman Hills; and site No. 9, two miles south of the Blaine-Lincoln county line east of Highway 75.

A final recommendation is to be made by the site committee at its April 26 meeting.

Reopening Triangle sites to study touched off a torrent of criticism in all directions, some aimed at the airport authority, some at the Sun Valley Resort, which critics have regarded as an "agent provocateur."

Even Baird, the airport manager, took shots at the site committee minority, accusing it of soliciting letters from SkyWest Airlines and Horizon Air in hopes of bolstering claims that any site south of Timmerman Hills would be deleterious to airline revenues.

He also said it was "offensive" that the letters were released to the media before the board could even read them.

And in his sharpest assault on the resort-business faction, Baird said "those interested (in the airport) should have participated from the beginning" of the process, "not at the end."

Sitting in the front row of an overflow audience of 80-plus spectators, Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton admitted he and others had solicited the letters, but obliquely apologized for their dissemination.

The admission prompted authority Chairwoman Martha Burke to berate Fenton, accusing him of trying to detour the site selection process.

"You have been critical of pretty much everything" done by the site committee, the airport staff and consultants in the site search process, she said, yet he and others haven't followed the process.

Fenton explained that Sun Valley-Ketchum groups have been prodding airlines because "the air carriers have been slow in coming" with their points of view on a site, although the airlines are represented on the site committee.

Burke, who has a knack for edgy questions and comments, suggested that despite claims that a distant new airport would hamper air carrier business, airlines other than SkyWest and Horizon might have an interest in operating at a larger airport and scheduling longer direct flights to major markets.

"The air carriers (SkyWest and Horizon) basically have a monopoly. Have you talked to other air carriers" about a new airport, Burke asked Fenton in a needling tone.

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, who's also an authority member, bristled at Fenton's nudging air carriers for letters. "Short-changing the process," she called it.

The evening's most stinging denunciation came from site committee member Susan Cutter, representing the city of Sun Valley, who said that pressure from the Sun Valley Resort to keep Friedman or a Triangle site was a "disingenuous and duplicitous attack on the (site) process," designed, she said, to scuttle the search so no new site would be found.

Calls to the Sun Valley Resort's spokesman, Jack Sibbach, seeking comment were not returned Wednesday or Thursday.

Another audience member, Jay Coleman, accused the authority of "violating the public trust" by voting to reopen the Triangle study after the "usual suspects came knocking at your door."

Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission member Larry Schoen, a regular observer at site committee and authority meetings, said listening to the board justify reopening Triangle sites for study was "excruciating" and "disrespectful" to the public that had been assured none of the Triangle sites were acceptable.

On Thursday, having heard that the authority might reverse itself, Schoen told the Mountain Express "until real action is taken" to eliminate Triangle sites, "we will be vigilant."

At a periodic "coffee talk" Friedman officials held Thursday morning in Bellevue, authority member Len Harlig said, "I won't disagree" with accusations from one of about a dozen people attending that the board had bowed to pressure from Sun Valley Co. to revisit Triangle sites.

Harlig also hinted later in a phone call that the authority probably would retract instructions to consultants to study the sites.

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