Friday, September 16, 2005

Lincoln residents rip airport search

Airport and county officials apologize for failure to communicate

Express Staff Writer

A special town hall-type meeting Tuesday night of the Lincoln County Commission to answer questions about a possible airport site north of Shoshone turned into something of a residents' gripe session.

Connie Sorensen, owner of more than 900 acres of ranch and farm land in the so-called site No. 9 area, designated as the preferred site to replace Hailey's Friedman Memorial Airport, complained that she hadn't been contacted about the designation.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rusty Parker, who served on the citizens' site selection committee, explained that its meetings over the past year were open to the public. But he agreed more could have been done to inform Lincoln County residents about developments in the site search.

"I realized I should have contacted you," Parker said, turning to look at Sorensen and some 50 people who showed up for the meeting, which continued for two and a half hours in the county courthouse.

Friedman Memorial Airport Authority member Len Harlig, who attended the meeting with airport manager Rick Baird, added, "If you want an apology, you've got one. We should have come to the property owners."

Parker and the other two commissioners—Chairman Jerry Nance and Commissioner Wendell Johnson—clearly were taken aback by the outbursts of criticism.

Harlig relieved some of the pressure momentarily when he explained that the site committee designation of three locales for a possible new airport—site No. 9 in Lincoln County, site No. 12 east of Fairfield in Camas County and site No. 10 in Blaine County south of Timmerman Hills—was merely a waypoint in a long process.

He said that before any site is finally picked, it must survive an environmental impact study and multi-pronged reviews by the Federal Aviation Administration involving such factors as weather, noise impact, terrain obstacles and economic viability.

In the end, Harlig said, Lincoln County commissioners must decide whether to remain as a site contender, not the Friedman Airport governing board. Furthermore, he added darkly, none of the three sites may meet FAA standards, which would mean a whole new site selection process would be launched.

"I felt we should look at something in Lincoln County," Parker said. "I couldn't see any harm in studying that. But some public input would have been better. I still think we should be looking at a site in Lincoln."

Nance agreed, standing and facing the audience.

"We need to look at this thing," he said. "It's a long way from having a Lincoln County airport. But wherever an airport is built, it will have an impact on us."

Nance said Lincoln is "running out of (property) values" and needs something such as an airport to act as an economic stimulus.

Another county resident, Kay Billington, shifted criticism in another direction. She said she was concerned that the government would condemn property of unwilling sellers for an airport and use appraisal guidelines disadvantageous to owners. Parker said he would resist any attempts at condemnation and rely on negotiated sales. Harlig observed that from a tax standpoint, condemnation often offers advantages to property owners.

Questions then turned to issues Harlig and Baird have heard at meetings in Camas County, at authority meetings in Hailey and at "coffee talks" with citizens in various venues in the region.

Baird said he and Harlig "are not here to sell, but to answer questions."

They outlined the scenario that prompted the site search: Friedman is under an FAA mandate to meet safety standards at the present location or a new location. Baird said both the city of Hailey and Blaine County had decided not to expand the Hailey field as required to comply.

The audience raised other questions.

Question: How much water would an airport use?

Answer: About the same as 25 homes.

Q: Would an airport in Lincoln County be more expensive to operate than Hailey?

A: Probably, because it would need in-house emergency medical, fire and police staffing, whereas Friedman can rely on surrounding community services.

Q: When would an airport be built?

A: Maybe in 10 years, if no obstacles arose.

Q: Would noise affect residents?

A: Anyone who lives near an airport would hear noise.

Q: When will the decision on a site be made?

A: The first of the year.

Baird and Harlig invited the audience to attend the special Sept. 28 airport authority meeting at the Community Campus in Hailey to make comments about the site search; or, they could send written comments to the authority.

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