Friday, July 7, 2006

Mayors' letter to FAA seeks stall on airport site selection

Express Staff Writer

With help from the most persistent critic of moving Friedman Memorial Airport, the mayors of Sun Valley and Ketchum have signed a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration to delay action on approving a new site while they raise money to conduct their own study.

The June 30 letter, signed by Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson and Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, comes some 10 months after a citizens site selection committee recommended building a new airport in southern Blaine County and nearly two years after the committee was formed.

Reaction to the letter was quick and with a mixture of anger, suspicion and bafflement. The 850-word letter, sent to FAA Northwest Mountain Region Manager J. Wade Bryant, apparently was composed and mailed without the knowledge of council members in either city.

Ketchum Council President Baird Gourlay first heard of the letter when called Thursday, July 6, by a Mountain Express reporter for reaction.

Sun Valley Councilman Nils Ribi clearly was upset.

Saying he received an e-mail copy at 10 p.m. Wednesday night, Ribi said the letter "doesn't reflect how I feel" and "will create more antagonism between north and south county and stifle regional efforts we've been working so hard on."

He added, "The letter appears to be a last ditch effort to derail the (site) process."

Thorson defended the letter, saying it was "not an official position" of the city and therefore didn't require council approval. He said he and his wife wrote the letter along with Hall, and added "some information" came from Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton, a member of the site committee and an unapologetic critic of a distant airport site.

Thorson also said he doesn't believe local residents have been given accurate information on the costs of expanding the present airport and said he'd favor a countywide vote to determine if residents want Friedman to remain where it is.

The $25,000 to $45,000 needed to pay a private consultant for a new study will be solicited from private parties.

Hall did not respond to a voice message left on his cell phone.

Those who've read the letter say the wording is remarkably similar to language used by Fenton in his frequent arguments questioning grounds for moving the airport farther away.

However, when asked by the Express whether he wrote the letter, Fenton said he "contributed some of the technical stuff."

When asked why objectors to the site and the selection study don't wait until an environmental and economic impact study that commences next year to express their objections, Fenton said, "There's some apprehension about whether the EIS will be scoped to adequately address these issues."

Fenton was Ketchum's alternate on the site selection committee. Then-Council President Hall was Ketchum's primary member. However, Hall attended only one meeting and sat in the audience while Fenton was joined by Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman and former Ketchum Councilman Maurice Charlat in opposing a distant site.

Actually, last fall's final recommendation of a site south of Timmerman Hill and east of state Highway 75 hasn't been sent to the FAA by Friedman officials. It was one of 16 locales evaluated by the committee of 25 primary and 25 alternate members.

Airport attorney Barry Luboviski said he'd be "very surprised" if the FAA would delay work on the strength of a letter, especially since "owners" of the airport are the city of Hailey and Blaine County, both of which have voted to close Friedman and relocate.

Furthermore, the FAA doesn't begin the EIS process until next summer.

The Thorson-Hall letter mimics the theme of Fenton's ongoing arguments during the past year or so—travel needs of Sun Valley Resort and second-home owners were not considered adequately in selecting a new site; adverse impact on travelers of a new site was not considered properly; other feasible sites were not evaluated; minimum revenue guarantees (subsidies) for airlines were not taken into account.

The mayors asked for a 60- to 90-day delay in any FAA work while another consultant is hired to bolster the Sun Valley and Ketchum arguments.

"We believe the site selection study neither fairly evaluated the existing site nor thoroughly evaluated feasible alternate sites that meet the air carriers' convenience criteria, and failed to adequately address the funding mechanisms for the significant subsidies that would be required at the proposed site," the mayors' letter said.

"Without these concerns answered, the report is seriously flawed, significantly incomplete and could lead to irreparable damage to our economy if used as the basis for airport site selection," it continued.

Fenton said several consultants who would be paid by unspecified sources are being interviewed now.

Longtime Airport Manager Rick Baird said the letter is filled with inaccuracies, pointing out that both SkyWest Airlines and Horizon Air, Friedman's two air carriers, had members on the site committee. He also pointed out that federal law prohibits airports from paying subsidies to airlines, as suggested by the letter.

"Those two mayors (Thorson and Hall) should make their positions clear," Baird said. "If their only acceptable option is the existing site and they don't care about the impact on people around the airport or safety or socioeconomic impact, why don't they say it?"

Noting that the FAA has warned Friedman that the field is now out of compliance with safety standards for large aircraft operating there and must relocate or expand, Baird said the mayors' letter not once mentioned concerns for safety.

As for whether Fenton was the real author of the letter, Baird replied indirectly, saying, "It's a letter that was carefully crafted by someone who participated in the process all along."

Sun Valley's principal site committee member, Susan Cutter, a licensed but inactive pilot, e-mailed Mayor Thorson a sizzling criticism.

"Your letter advocates putting the North Valley's economic interests (keep the airport where it is for the convenience of North Valley customers) over the interests of the residents of Hailey. That is an untenable position."

Airport Authority member Len Harlig called the letter "unnecessary."

"Both cities would've been wiser to allow the EIS process to look at and answer questions they raised and had ample opportunity before a record of decision to address any comments," he said.

Harlig added "the timing is curious. They had nine months for additional study if that's what they wanted. This will sharpen the divide of north and south (county)."

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, who's also vice chair of the Airport Authority, called it "an abdication of official responsibility" that mayors Thorson and Hall did not participate in the site selection process, but now criticize it.

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