Wednesday, September 29, 2010

County drafts ‘road map’ for airport

Proposal’s aim: reduce conflict

Express Staff Writer

Derek Voss

"It rests on you," Blaine County Administrator Derek Voss warned the county commissioners during their regular meeting Monday.

The "it" in question was whether a new airport will be built to replace Friedman Memorial in Hailey, a major point of contention in recent years. Not only has the proposed new airport's location been a matter of much discussion, but the roles of the four organizations involved in ensuring that the airport is built—Blaine County, the city of Hailey, the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and the Blaine County Airport Advisory Committee—have still not been clearly defined.

However, Voss presented a potential road map at the meeting that should shed a little more light on how the transfer of authority from the city of Hailey and the Freidman Memorial Airport Authority to Blaine County will eventually play out. The existing airport is owned jointly by the city and county, which both have representatives on the governing authority.

A replacement airport for Friedman has been in development for years, after the Federal Aviation Administration determined that the facility's runway did not meet safety standards for larger aircraft that use the field. The project—tentatively proposed for a site in southern Blaine County near the Lincoln County line—is currently under review by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The presentation Monday was a preview of what the county will present to the city of Hailey next month, and includes a series of proposed steps that must be taken before the county gains sole sponsorship.

As proposed, the county and Hailey would continue to work with the Airport Authority to plan the replacement airport. According to County Commissioner Larry Schoen, the city has previously stated that it would not relinquish any authority until the new airport opens. But the new road map would grant the county full responsibility for the replacement airport's construction once a plan, a location and environmental impact statement have been approved by the FAA.

This transfer of power is necessary for the county to receive the federal grant money available for the airport's construction, Voss said. Under federal law, construction grants must be awarded to an airport sponsor. Though the Airport Authority administered the planning grants for the new airport, the county plans to act as the new airport's sole sponsor and must take on that role before construction grants can be awarded.

Voss repeatedly warned that it's a distinct possibility that a new airport won't get built if the city and the county cannot come to an agreement on how and when to transfer authority.

"If [the Hailey City Council members] don't appreciate that you need to have certain authorities, this won't succeed," Voss said.

Voss said the county must strive to communicate what its intentions are and build trust with the other organizations and municipalities involved.

Distrust among the parties was continually cited as a roadblock to the airport's success, the most recent example being a spat at the authority's last meeting between Schoen and Martha Burke, Hailey city councilwoman and vice chair of the Airport Authority. While Schoen emphasized the county's role in the new airport's development, Burke fought to preserve Hailey's place, leading to a heated discussion.

At the meeting Monday, Schoen said the plan for transition of sponsorship and authority outlined in the county's presentation is part of the groundwork for more peaceful collaboration.

"We all have risk, there is risk going in every direction, and that's why it's important that we all work together," he said. "It's going to be a long, hard road ahead if we as a community don't come together to see this project through to its successful completion."

One concern, introduced by Commissioner Tom Bowman, is that the county has not officially passed a resolution to sponsor the new airport. Voss said such a resolution is "critically important." If the county decides not to sponsor the facility, Voss said, all previous planning has been "a lot of work for no value."

Schoen said the county has every intention of sponsoring the airport, but "there needs to be collaboration, there needs to be much better communication."

Fortunately, Voss said, the city of Hailey and all other parties are just as anxious for the county's successful completion of the airport as the county is.

"They don't want you to fail, either," Voss said. "That's their biggest fear."

Schoen is currently working with Burke and city staffers to set a meeting time to make sure the city's concerns are addressed.

"We've all been working very hard to find the best way forward," Schoen said. "I want them to go into any meeting with us knowing we care about their questions and concerns."

The meeting between the county and the city of Hailey is anticipated to occur in the next few weeks.

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