Friday, October 27, 2006

Airport OKs $300,000 to hang tree lights

10-year deal gets conditional approval

Express Staff Writer

Except for tweaking words and passages in a draft document, the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority moved decisively Tuesday night to conditionally approve a 10-year agreement with the adjoining Flying Hat Ranch to install obstruction lights in towering cottonwood trees sticking up into the approach slope to the runway.

But it came at a price. The agreement requires an annual Friedman payment of $30,000, or $300,000 over the life of the deal, to allow airport workers' access to 48.49 acres of the ranch to maintain and repair the solar-powered lights.

The airport board will meet in another special session at 9 a.m., today, Oct. 27, to ratify a final agreement with the Eccles family, which owns the ranch. However, if any of the authority's five members objects to the document wording, further discussions will likely be held.

Even before final approval and signing of a document, however, six lights on plastic poles were hurriedly installed in the trees over the past week to meet an Oct. 26 Federal Aviation Administration deadline for updated instrument approach charts for the nation's airports.

Without obstruction lights, the trees—ranging in height from 90 to 105 feet—would have been noted nationally as obstructions. Airport Manager Rick Baird cautioned the board in past meetings that SkyWest Airlines and Horizon Air might not allow flight crews to make night landings at Friedman.

The authority also voted not to pursue any eminent domain action in the courts.

The need for obstruction lights developed when Friedman extended the runway pavement southward by 600 feet, which means landing aircraft would be in a descent much lower over the trees. One estimate is that airliners would be 41 feet lower over a ranch house on the Eccles property.

Oddly, although the authority meeting was a public session, and the draft agreement under discussion Tuesday night involved a long-discussed safety problem, Baird declined to share copies of the document with two news reporters at the meeting.

Baird theorized that if the draft document's wording is changed by Friday, media would have been "reporting the wrong info" from the draft paper. "Technically, last night (Tuesday) could've been an executive session" behind closed doors, he added.

Without a copy of the three-page document, reporters were left to guesswork about cryptic chit-chat among the airport board on the need to modify words in this section and that section. However, several members alluded to the cost of the agreement with Eccles, the length of the contract, and the acreage involved.

The only other person at the meeting was Marc Reinemann, special representative to Spencer Eccles. Reinemann in August presciently told the Mountain Express, "I hope we can work things out. Reasonable people can do reasonable things."

Reinemann confirmed on Wednesday that the agreement was crafted over more than a month in discussions between Eccles attorney Evans Robertson, of Twin Falls, and airport attorney Barry Luboviski and Reinemann. Members of the authority did not receive copies of the draft until Monday, Reinemann said.

Authority member Tom Bowman was the first to express reservations, saying, "My palms are sweating about having to sign tonight." This prompted other members to agree the document needed tweaking before authority Chairwoman Martha Burke signs it.

Bowman was concerned by a phrase that assumes the obstruction lights will allow "larger aircraft" to use the field. "I don't know how that encourages larger aircraft."

Then, member Dr. Ron Fairfax, an aircraft owner and pilot, asked what would happen if at the end of the agreement's 10-year time frame Friedman had not closed and relocated to a new site, as has been decided.

Member Len Harlig expressed concerns about a clause suggesting Eccles could ask for damages to property after the agreement expires. He asserted that the $30,000 annual payment—he called it "substantial"—should be considered adequate to satisfy any damages. Harlig worried that the wording would allow Eccles to claim damages in perpetuity.

Reinemann reassured the board their concerns could be eliminated in rewording of the draft.

The agreement, according to the gist of discussions among authority members, also would restrict the authority from opposing any plans for the Eccles property. This raised eyebrows of authority Vice Chairwoman Susan McBryant, the mayor of Hailey. She said individual members of the authority in their other public roles (McBryant as Hailey mayor, Burke as a Hailey City Council member, Bowman as a Blaine County commissioner) should have the right to weigh in on Flying Hat Ranch plans. Reinemann agreed, saying the clause would only apply to the Friedman authority as a body.

Reinemann said Eccles might need to construct corrals and barns and the like, but would not construct anything compromising the safety of the airport.

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