Friday, January 12, 2007

Bureaucratic minefield looms in airport EIS

EIS consultant to be chosen soon

Express Staff Writer

With the rapid-fire precision of one who's been there, done that, Denver attorney Peter Kirsch on Wednesday spelled out for the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority the long, elaborate bureaucratic process required before the site for a new airport is finally approved.

Nationally recognized as an aviation law expert, Kirsch has been hired as a consultant to help develop an environmental impact statement, a federal-funded study that could take several years and cost upwards of $2 million, depending on unforeseen additional work in the process.

Using a slideshow tutorial with elementary points involved in an EIS, Kirsch emphasized that very precise adherence to the process and the intricate requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act is a must to avoid lawsuits and challenges to the EIS' accuracy.

Within the next month or so, the Federal Aviation Administration and the airport will select from perhaps a dozen bidders a consultant to conduct the EIS.

Thereafter, a precise series of waypoints will be followed—defining the scope of the EIS, defining the purpose and need of a new airport, alternatives to Friedman's designated preferred site in southern Blaine County, a wide-ranging environmental analysis involving data from an array of agencies and interested parties, completion of a draft EIS, public comment on the draft, a final EIS; and then the FAA's record of decision.

One point Kirsch repeatedly stressed is that the sponsor of a new airport—in this case, the city of Hailey and Blaine County, operating through the Friedman authority—must agree to the findings. If the sponsor declines to support any recommendation, other than a site it prefers, the FAA finding becomes moot.

In response to a question from a Camas County citizen in the audience, authority member Len Harlig interjected that the airport's governing body has no jurisdiction to decide land use for an airport in another county, an allusion to whether Friedman officials would approve a site in an area near Fairfield.

One persistent critic of closing Friedman airport, Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton, asked Kirsch several times about whether those dissatisfied with the site selection process that picked the proposed new airport site would be heard. Kirsch said their comments—both written and recorded at site committee meetings—will be reviewed, and critics then will have additional opportunities during the EIS process.

A new airport has been planned in large part as a reaction to determinations by the FAA that Friedman—in order to continue operations long term—must be expanded and reconfigured to meet safety regulations. Fenton, along with other north valley interests, maintains that upgrading Friedman and keeping it open is a better alternative than building a $100-plus million new airport.

On that point, Kirsch said that "how the (airport) board reached its decision is none of the FAA's business," but that "if there's an alternative out there that meets the technical criteria (for an airport) and the board rejected it," that would be the basis for a review.

Hailey and Blaine County already have adopted policy positions declaring that Friedman will be closed rather than upgraded to eliminate FAA concerns about Friedman's safety for larger and faster air carrier aircraft.

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