Wednesday, July 8, 2009

County begins shaping new airport board

Advisory committee will help chart the transition from old to new airport

Express Staff Writer

The task of relocating local air service from the Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey to a new spot in southern Blaine County will not be a simple one.

Completing this complex assignment with as little disruption to the Wood River Valley's air service as possible will be the responsibility of both the existing Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and a new governance board that valley officials are in the midst of forming. During a discussion Tuesday, the Blaine County Commission began the process of setting a timeline for the complicated transition of power.

The change will not be simple nor without controversy.

When to shift the decision-making power away from the current airport authority to the new board seems to be the biggest hurdle officials will have to face.

"The time will come where they'll assume authority," Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said in an interview.

Schoen said timing of the transition is largely dependent on the completion of an environmental impact statement that the Federal Aviation Administration is currently mid-way through drafting. The final EIS will likely name one of three designated airport sites as the preferred spot for the new and much larger airport.

FAA officials have predicted a 2016 opening date for the new airport.

County officials are also contending with accusations that the process is not inclusive enough. Some believe the interests of the north valley are not being adequately represented in the transition.

The squabble over who should have a say and how much has the potential to throw a serious monkey wrench into the talks. For their part, Hailey officials have repeatedly said they are not interested in changing the membership on the current airport authority.

They have given support for the idea of forming an advisory committee early on.

Membership on the current airport authority is comprised of Hailey and county interests only. Some have argued that the joint powers agreement that established the authority should be renegotiated to allow membership by north valley interests. Hailey and county officials have mostly met the calls for greater participation with skepticism. According to Schoen, the public has been given "ample opportunity" to make its views known during the airport discussions.

Though no decisions have been made so far, the commissioners are considering an option that would have the new advisory board steadily taking on new tasks until such time that it takes the lead role in preparing for the opening of the new airport. At that point, the existing airport authority might take a step back into a more advisory role, Schoen said.

Near the end of Tuesday's discussion, Schoen asked Commissioner Tom Bowman to work with airport authority member Len Harlig on a mission statement for the new airport body. Friedman Manager Rick Baird was asked to come up with a phasing plan for the transition.

Airport attorney Barry Luboviski told the commissioners that specifying a complete set of tasks for the new airport committee to take on will be important during the transition. Lacking a mission could throw the process into disarray, he said.

"You're going to create conflict where it doesn't need to be there," Luboviski said.

County officials are planning a fact-finding trip to St. George, Utah, which is currently in the midst of relocating air service to a new airport. Sometime later this fall, county officials will meet with Hailey leaders to discuss recommendations for the transition of power.

Jason Kauffman:

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