Friday, October 14, 2011

Airport expansion memo raises hackles

County commissioner open to eminent domain on nearby ranch


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Cattle graze just south of Friedman Memorial Airport on the Flying Hat Ranch. One Blaine County commissioner has said that he is willing to pursue condemning the property if airport expansion is approved at the current site. Photo by David N. Seelig

A question of asserting eminent domain if Friedman Memorial Airport expands at its current site has been broached due to a memo that one Blaine County commissioner said was released inadvertently at an Oct. 4 meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board.

The letter, a memo from County Commissioner Larry Schoen to airport Manager Rick Baird, states that Schoen is "prepared to proceed to the assertion of eminent domain" over the 511-acre Flying Hat Ranch just south of the airport.

However, the memo goes on to state that Schoen only supports asserting eminent domain if the Airport Authority finds it necessary, i.e., if the authority chooses to expand the airport at its current site.

Though no decisions have been made as to whether Friedman will be expanded at the current site or relocated to another, the recently most-discussed option has been shifting the runway 1,800 feet to the south.

The shift would allow an expansion of the "obstacle-free area" that is too small at the current site to meet FAA standards for Class 3 aircraft, including Horizon Air's Q-400 turboprop planes. Because the buildings to the south of the main terminal are located slightly to the west of the terminal, shifting the runway could allow the airport to meet FAA design standards.

But the shift would also push the end of the runway outside the existing airport's footprint, requiring acquisition of part of the adjacent land.

Schoen said he sent the memo to Baird in case the possibility of acquiring part of the ranch arose, as Schoen was out of the country and unable to attend the meeting in person.

None of the Airport Authority board members introduced the subject at the well-attended meeting, but County Commissioner and Airport Authority Board Member Angenie McCleary told participants that Schoen had drafted a memo outlining his position on airport expansion, which was available on request.

"I'm surprised this got released if the matter didn't come up," Schoen said. "It was my way of not wishing to delay discussion or consideration of the issue."

In an interview, Baird confirmed his understanding of the intent of the memo.

"It was my understanding that Larry wanted that memo used if the subject came up," Baird said. "Those discussions never took place."

The memo did prompt discussion at a Hailey City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 10, as City Councilman Fritz Haemmerle interpreted the message to mean that Schoen was starting the condemnation process.

"This memo, from what I understand, is a rogue memo, without any authorization from the FMAA," Haemmerle said in an interview.

Haemmerle said such decisions should be made through the Airport Authority board, including members Susan McBryant, Don Keirn and Martha Burke, representatives from the city of Hailey.

"Not a single one of our FMAA representatives has brought this to the City Council," Haemmerle said. "If you're on a board, you're a member of a board, and you don't go directing people like this without having board authority."

Eminent domain is also known as condemnation, when a municipality such as a city or county acquires private land to be used for a public purpose. Idaho code allows a city or county to assert eminent domain over lands to be used to build airports, hangars and aviation fields.

However, the process is lengthy and rife with legal procedure. First, the Blaine County 5th District Court must determine the fair market value of the property in question, which the county or city must pay within 30 days of the court's decision. If only part of a larger parcel is to be condemned, as in a potential Friedman case, this value must also include the damages to the section of land that will not be condemned and any damage to business occurring on the property.

Baird said Schoen was the only Airport Authority member to mention the issue of eminent domain to him, and reasserted that no decisions to expand the airport have been made. He said his staff is studying the costs and logistics of shifting the Friedman runway 1,800 feet to the south.

Baird said complete information would not be available until the authority's December meeting.

Schoen said he was prompted to consider asserting eminent domain and to draft the memo by a phone call from real estate broker Marc Reinemann, who represents Flying Hat Ranch owner Spencer Eccles.

According to Schoen, Reinemann had requested that if expansion of the airport occurs at the current site, the county take the land by condemnation. The reason, he said, could be that condemnation could provide a tax advantage to the landowners. Reinemann declined to comment on that conversation or any other issues regarding condemnation when reached by phone on Wednesday.

Schoen said he was surprised the memo has been interpreted by Hailey representatives as starting the process of asserting eminent domain, but that he feared the upcoming elections may have played a part in the reaction.

"It's very unsettling to me that anybody would be jumping to conclusions and becoming emotional or distraught without trying to understand it further," he said. "I fear politics are creeping into the equation."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

The Memo

The full text of Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen's 'eminent domain memo' to Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird:

Dear Rick,

Pursuant to a direct enquiry [sic] of me by Mr. Marc Reinemann and your and my conversation by telephone, this letter shall indicate to you and all concerned, no more than an expression of my willingness and preparedness to proceed to the assertion of eminent domain and acquisition by condemnation of any lands that could be determine to be necessary for expansion of Friedman Memorial Airport. Such an action would necessarily be predicated upon deliberation and findings by the FMA Authority that its purpose is the public benefit and it is lawful under Idaho's statutes and Constitution.

I hope this indication of my intent is adequate for any proceedings from which I may be absent where the question of Board members [sic] intent arises.

Respectfully,

Lawrence Schoen




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