Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fairfield eyes plan to build major airport

Is Camas County city trying to boost tourism?

Express Staff Writer

A Horizon Air passenger plane sits at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. The Federal Aviation Administration has demanded that plans be put in place to replace Friedman because the field cannot comply over the long term with federal safety standards.

The tiny Camas County city of Fairfield—whose 2006 estimated population was 404—has declared its interest in sponsoring construction of a large regional airport to replace Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, at a cost in excess of $100 million.

The city's intent is expressed in a letter it is sending this week to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The decision—possibly a move to bolster the standing of Soldier Mountain Resort near Fairfield—has created a wave of criticism and raised questions about Fairfield Mayor David Hanks' lack of public discussion, his motives and the ability of Fairfield to pull off such a large project.

In an interview with the Mountain Express, Hanks hinted at grounds for the letter.

"The Sun Valley Co. wants it all," he said, while referring to Soldier Mountain as a "family alternative" to vacationers.

An interest in promoting tourism could also account for discussions Hanks has had about private financing of an airport with people he declined to name, but whom others have said have ties to Soldier Mountain owner Bruce Willis.

The first obstacle Fairfield faces is a March 31 FAA deadline to prove a community's ability to sponsor a project, including title to enough property, sufficient funds, local interest and compatibility with local planning.

Fairfield owns no property for an airport that could require up to 1,200 acres of land, the city's annual budget is $576,000 and Camas County Commission Chairman Ken Backstrom says the county decided Monday it has no interest in sponsoring an airport. If Fairfield acquired land for an airport, Camas County would have to allow an airport in its land-use plans.

In the letter to the FAA, Hanks in effect asked for a waiver from the deadline so community discussions could continue.

But the major issue growing out of the Fairfield decision is Hanks' decision to write the letter on his own without public hearings and without any formal City Council discussion beforehand. He produced the letter for the first time at the council's March 19 meeting. According to some at the meeting, 10 minutes or less was devoted to discussion by the council, which then authorized it to be mailed to the FAA.

In it, Hanks claimed "substantial interest" in the community for an airport.

But David Konrad, of the Preserve the Camas Prairie group that opposes such an airport, disputes the mayor, saying most of the county's residents (estimated 2006 population is 1,008) oppose an airport. A phone survey reported a 2-to-1 ratio of opposition, he said. Konrad indicated his group, which registered its opposition at several site selection committee meetings, would oppose the Fairfield plan.

Another critic, developer George Martin Jr., lambasted the mayor for "strictly backroom" government secrecy and told the Mountain Express he had to file a "request to examine/copy public records" form with the city to obtain a copy of the Hanks letter to the FAA.

But Martin was more direct in what he believes Hanks is attempting to do single-handedly—accommodate the business objectives of mega-wealthy landowner Bruce McCaw and actor Bruce Willis. Martin said the attempt to locate a large airport in Camas County could be part of an effort to boost development of Willis' Soldier Mountain ski area into a major resort that competes with Sun Valley.

Willis already has offered to donate his relatively small tract of land in Camas County for an airfield.

McCaw, who has amassed a fortune in the cellular phone industry, was calculated by Forbes magazine at one time to have a net worth of $925 million.

McCaw met with Hanks on Jan. 2 in a meeting that state Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, confirmed she arranged so McCaw could talk about a number of issues. The airport was mentioned only incidentally, she recalls. She described McCaw as a large landowner in Camas County.

McCaw's holdings apparently are under various corporate names. Phone messages seeking comment left by the Mountain Express at McCaw's Seattle-area office and with his Camas County manager, Rod Gonzales, were not immediately returned.

Willis' land is in eastern Camas County while McCaw owns substantial acreage in western Blaine County, the consolidation of which might constitute enough land for a large airport.

However, the FAA's goal is to replace Friedman Memorial. The current "owners" of Friedman, the city of Hailey and Blaine County, insist on a site inside Blaine County.

Furthermore, Blaine County Commission Chairman Tom Bowman told the Mountain Express the county has no need or interest in co-sponsorship of a new airport with any other entity. The county's preferred location for the airport is in southern Blaine County east of state Highway 75.

If Hanks is counting on FAA approval of a publicly owned airport financed by private funds from sources such as McCaw, this would present a ticklish legal question. FAA official Cayla Morgan, who's in charge of the current environmental impact study, said such a question now would be too hypothetical to answer.

As if to broaden Fairfield's role in the event sponsorship failed, Hanks said the city would still feel "it's important to be involved from a regional standpoint" with its viewpoints.

Lincoln County and the cities of Shoshone, Dietrich and Richfield have sent letters to the FAA expressing no interest in sponsorship of an airport.

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