Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Friedman Airport granted eminent domain

One-time authorization will only apply to Eccles' land

Express Staff Writer

Although admitting full well the significance of their decision, the Hailey City Council and Blaine County Commission this week both voted to allow the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority to proceed with eminent domain proceedings on private property south of the airport.

Specifically, the vote by the elected bodies adds a fourth amendment to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Joint Powers Agreement. The joint powers agreement between the city of Hailey and Blaine County, which own the airport, established the operating parameters for the governing body of the airport.

The move by the city and county has to do with an apparent deadlock between the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and the owner of ranch lands just south of the airport.

The owners of the land, the Eccles family, have reportedly refused to allow the installation of solar-powered obstruction lights in towering trees on their property to comply with Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations.

The impasse comes after lengthy discussions between the airport and a representative of the Flying Hat Ranch. Airport officials, including Airport Manager Rick Baird, have indicated that the FAA could end commercial night flights into Friedman if no compromise was reached.

Before the Hailey City Council's vote on Monday night, Baird gave a brief historical sketch of what has led up to the current impasse.

Not achieving a positive result to break the impasse and allow for the lighting of the trees to the FAA's liking could lead to the temporary elimination of instrument approaches at the airport, Baird warned. Such an outcome would mean aircraft using onboard instruments to land rather than by sight, essentially all commercial aircraft, couldn't land at the Friedman Memorial Airport, he said.

"We can't get in a position where we lose that service," Baird said, noting that no flights could land at night under that scenario.

Describing himself as a strong proponent of private property rights, Hailey City Council President Rick Davis said that in this specific case he is more concerned with ensuring public safety.

"Safety is paramount in all of our minds," Davis said. "I would definitely be fine with this (amendment to the joint powers agreement)."

Eminent domain proceedings largely hinge on issues related to the greater public good, Hailey City Councilman Don Keirn pointed out. "I can't think of a greater public good," he said.

Asked by Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant if the Airport Authority intends to pursue litigation, airport attorney Barry Luboviski said such a move is likely if the ongoing negotiations fail to reach any results.

"We're going to have to file if we don't have this worked out quickly," Luboviski said.

Baird and Luboviski attended the Blaine County Commission's Tuesday morning meeting to lobby for that panel's approval of the amendment to the joint powers agreement.

Commissioners Sarah Michael and Tom Bowman approved the amendment. Commissioner Dennis Wright wasn't present for the vote.

The tree-related safety issue just adds to the obstacles Friedman has been facing since the FAA declared the facility does not comply with safety standards required for larger aircraft using the field, such as Horizon Air's Bombardier Q400.

Expanding the field has been rejected by the city of Hailey and Blaine County as too costly and too disruptive on surrounding property. A site for a new airport with a longer, 8,500-foot runway has been tentatively designated in an isolated area in southern Blaine County.

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