Friday, May 27, 2005

Lincoln County first choice for new airport site

Prickly questions still haunt search for new location

Express Staff Writer

After ignoring a chance to revive the Bellevue Triangle as a possible locale for a new airport, the Friedman Memorial Airport Site Selection Committee Tuesday night picked a Lincoln County site as its choice out of three candidate locations.

But less than a point separated the committee's evaluation of the top two sites to replace the aging Hailey field.

In a written ballot with 1-to-5 (worst-to-best) numerical ratings, 17 site committee members voted site No. 9 as their first choice with a cumulative total of 52.6 points. Eight committee principals and their alternates were absent.

Site 9 is located in Lincoln County about two miles south of the Blaine County line. On the east side of state Highway 75, it is about 30 miles south of Hailey and 15 miles north of Shoshone.

Second choice was controversial site 13 in Camas County, east of Fairfield along U.S. Highway 20, which received 52 points.

The last choice with 43.24 points was site 10, located east of state Highway 75 inside Blaine County south of the Timmerman Hill area, on property belonging principally to the Bureau of Land Management. Selecting the site had been vigorously opposed by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which said the land is an inviolate hunting and fishing preserve guaranteed by the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863.

One alternate committee member, Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton, voted twice—once as alternate to Ketchum City Council President Randy Hall, and the other vote as alternate to Maurice Charlat, a director of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau.

The site No. 9 recommendation now goes to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority for consideration, and then will ultimately be subjected to more studies before being handed to the Federal Aviation Administration for analysis and a final decision.

Site No. 9 seems destined for a friendly welcome. A member of the city of Shoshone Planning and Zoning Commission, Bud Andrews, was at Tuesday night's site committee meeting and made it clear in a brief statement he and others welcome a new airport.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rusty Parker, a member of the site committee, said later that while Lincoln residents seem to generally support the idea of an airport, costs the county might bear must first be discussed as well as the need to revise the county's comprehensive plan to allow an airport.

Site committee member Susan Cutter, representing the city of Sun Valley, seemed to speak for many committee members about preferring No. 9. She said strident opposition by Camas County residents to site No. 13 and opposition by Shoshone-Bannock tribal members to No. 10 weighted her vote toward No. 9.

Lincoln County, with a population of slightly more than 4,000, has an agriculture-based economy. Shoshone, with a population of approximately 1,300, is growing as workers in Blaine County seek less-expensive housing.

The site vote clearly was unenthusiastic. Few ratings of "5" (the best) were recorded for criteria being rated: population trends, proximity of the proposed airport, land use compatibility, impacts on the human environment, ease of acquiring the site, airport costs, air service, growth and development patterns, compatibility with planning, and jurisdiction responsibilities.

The scoring process also stirred prickly questions and criticisms.

Committee member Mike Rasch, chief financial officer of Sun Valley Aviation, commented on his ballot that data on fog conditions at site No. 9 have not been developed adequately.

The operator of a jet charter service at Friedman Memorial, Steve Garman, added that even the most sophisticated ILS (Instrument Landing System) at site No. 9 would not automatically guarantee all-weather landings in fog.

The committee's harshest critic of replacing Friedman with an airport outside the Wood River Valley, Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman, wrote on his ballot that "all sites 1-16 are fatally flawed in some way. Sites 9, 10 and 13 are fatally flawed economically. Site 3 is fatally flawed socially. The existing (airport) site is fatally flawed politically. Any site is a compromise. All existing (sic) 3, 9 should be compared to each other exhaustively in the process to follow."

For his part, Fenton wrote that "(site) 9 is the best of the three sites but is a poor choice." He said that "without having thoroughly analyzed the options at Friedman and without having analyzed the sites north of Timmerman Hill (in the Bellevue Triangle), we have no intelligent basis for comparison."

Huffman and Fenton believe that if a distant site is designated, airlines serving the area must be assured of subsidies, known as minimum revenue guarantees, to avoid losses.

When the session began Tuesday night, consultant Tom Schnetzer reminded the committee that the Airport Authority had disavowed any interest in restudying site No. 3 in the Triangle, instead referring the contentious issue back to the committee for its decision.

But the committee moved on to other matters.

Fenton, who bogged down much of the meeting with questions and comments, began challenging the semantics of whether the Federal Aviation Administration had made "full compliance" a "goal" or a "requirement" of Friedman Memorial Airport's configuration.

Because airliners classified as C-III aircraft (because of their larger wingspans and higher landing speeds) are operating at B-III-classified Friedman, the FAA has required an upgrade of the existing facility while the search for a new airport site is conducted.

Clearly irritated, Friedman Authority Chairwoman Martha Burke turned to Fenton, sitting two chairs away, and told him that there's "no latitude" with the FAA, and "(FAA) money goes away" if the airport avoids full compliance.

Fenton wasn't satisfied. He asked that the FAA supply a letter stating whether full compliance with safety standards is a "goal" or a "requirement."

From his seat behind Fenton, airport attorney Barry Luboviski, also known for his edgy observations, suggested that "those who believe the Earth is flat" should "ask the FAA yourself."

Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael, a site committee member, leaped into the exchange, impatience in her voice rising, suggesting the authority "get that in writing for Mr. Fenton so we don't go back and forth."

However, Fenton continued, apparently trying to persuade the site committee to study options that would allow Friedman Memorial to continue operating. He has insisted that options other than relocating state Highway 75 eastward and condemning 40 Woodside area homes in Hailey would allow the airport to expand and remain.

Fenton also asked for information on small regional jets that might operate out of the present Friedman and suggested that general aviation pilots might move their aircraft to the hamlet of Picabo's grass-strip airport if Friedman is closed, rather than move to a distant field. He also suggested private jet owners might build their own airport, and asked consultants for their "underlying assumptions" about the costs of a new airport.

Some of the data, Schnetzer said, would be included in a report to the airport board at its June 7 monthly meeting.

Fenton also has begun derisively calling site No. 9 "Ice Caves International" because of its remoteness and proximity to the Shoshone Ice Caves near state Highway 75. He used the term at least four times during his long exposition.

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