Friday, August 4, 2006

SV mayor, airport board exchange mild blows

Express Staff Writer

Stepping into the proverbial lion's den, Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson tried to reinforce his objections to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority picking a possible new distant airport site.

The reception to Thorson at the Tuesday night monthly airport board meeting was chilly but cordial.

"You were brave to come here," commented board member Len Harlig.

"I thought so, too," Thorson replied, quickly adding, "maybe foolish."

Thorson and Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall wrote a letter June 30 to the Federal Aviation Administration Northwest Region airports division manager, J. Wade Bryant, complaining the authority's airport relocation site study "fails to adequately represent the concerns of significant stakeholders in the Friedman Memorial Airport service area."

Although the letter mimicked phrasing used on a number of occasions by real estate executive and site selection committee member Dick Fenton in objecting to portions of the study, Thorson said he and Hall wrote the letter with minor input from Fenton.

During his appearance, Thorson said criticism of his letter was tantamount to "shooting the messenger," adding "I'm not here to argue with you; the result of that job (site study) is not perfect."

Continuing, Thorson said, "We're concerned about economic viability of our community." Thorson and Hall, as well as critics such as Fenton and Sun Valley Resort General Manager Wally Huffman, also a site committee member, maintain that a distant airport would discourage airline flight frequency and travelers.

Thorson then suggested too little attention was given to the cost of expanding Friedman and too little attention to an airport location in the Bellevue Triangle.

He implied the study misleadingly suggests the new airport would receive 90 percent in FAA construction funds, whereas he said the FAA told him "we'd be lucky to get 50 percent" of costs.

To which, airport consultant Chuck Sundby said site study documents clearly state the airport would be entitled to 90 percent by regulation, but that economic factors at the time of deciding on a site would dictate funding levels.

FMAA Chairwoman Martha Burke interrupted to ask Thorson if he was for or against keeping Friedman where it is. Thorson said he is neither.

But he did say that talk of actor Bruce Willis building an airport north of Fairfield, 50-plus miles from the Sun Valley area, "makes me nervous."

Burke also obliquely criticized Thorson for attending only four meetings during the year and half a new site was discussed. She also pointed out that it was not the airport board that eliminated the Triangle as a site, but the citizen site committee, which included Thorson's representative, Susan Cutter.

Moreover, she said, "a large portion of the community" doesn't support the Thorson-Hall letter to the FAA.

Airport Manager Rick Baird has been especially annoyed by critics who cite "sources" for statements that he said aren't documented. He challenged critics to cite "things that are in writing."

Baird said the entire site selection issue "is about a safe operating airport in accordance with FAA standards." The first serious study of a new airport was completed in 1994.

The FAA has said the airport is out of compliance because of landings by larger new aircraft, such as Horizon Air's Q400 propjet, and must be enlarged or relocated.

Baird said that Horizon has made it clear if the FAA refuses to allow Friedman to be used by Q400s, Horizon, he said, "wouldn't operate at Friedman."

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