Friday, October 28, 2011

Bellevue: ‘Not in our backyard!’

Leaders, citizens advocate for relocation of airport

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman, center, and Bellevue Mayor Chris Koch listen to public comment on airport expansion projects during a joint meeting of the authority and the Bellevue City Council on Tuesday night. Bellevue residents cited health issues, major aviation accidents and long-term reliability issues as reasons to move the airport far from the city. Photo by David N. Seelig

Friedman Memorial Airport can't and won't close in the foreseeable future, said airport officials at a joint meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and the Bellevue City Council on Tuesday night.

"Closing the airport is not an option," airport Manager Rick Baird said.

The reason, he said, is because the Airport Authority is bound by 39 grant assurances from the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the airport open to the public in perpetuity. That means maintaining the airport for general aviation operations, allowing anyone with a plane to land there.

Airport Improvement Grants for improving facilities only bind an authority for 20 years, but Baird said the authority also accepted grants for land acquisition, which remain in place indefinitely unless transferred to a replacement airport that is also open to private planes.

"Those assurances run forever, and those assurances say the owners will operate the airport," Baird said. "If you're going to dance with the devil, you have to pay the devil."

But those assurances do not keep the airport from losing commercial service, Baird said. If the community chose not to make any improvements at the existing site, the valley could lose all commercial air service. Losing commercial service would also mean losing the air traffic control tower funded for commercial use, meaning general aviation pilots would be at a greater safety risk.

"All you have to do is watch the air traffic when Allen and Co. is here, and you understand the value of the tower," Baird said, referring to an annual media and technology conference each July.

With the loss of commercial service would come a reduction in the funding the airport receives from the FAA. The airport receives $1.4 million annually, which would drop to $150,000 if commercial service disappeared.

Baird said snow removal services and aircraft firefighting teams would also need to be cut with a cut in airline service to Sun Valley.

Nearly 130 Bellevue residents remained undeterred by those pronouncements, however, and continued to publicly oppose any airport remaining in the valley.

Chantrelle subdivision homeowner Darsi Cordingley quoted an article from the New England Journal of Medicine stating that those who live within six miles of an airport are more likely to develop cancer.

"I have worked with the Blaine County schools for 20 years," she said. "I have worked with children who are fighting leukemia, and I have watched them die. We need to think of the people who have lived here for many, many years."

Overwhelmingly, residents and even Airport Authority board members supported relocating the airport over expanding it. Baird said relocation was likely the "ultimate solution," though he admitted the obstacles facing relocation are "huge."

The 1994 master plan for Friedman Memorial Airport states that any expansion of airport operations should occur at an alternate site. That statement remained the official policy of the Airport Authority until the FAA announced it was suspending work on a draft environmental impact statement that would determine a preferred site for a replacement airport. The FAA suspended work in August, citing financial difficulties and concerns with sage grouse habitat at Site 10A south of Bellevue.

The financial concerns focus on a replacement airport's skyrocketing price tag, upwards of $300 million for either Site 10A or Site 12 just east of the Blaine-Camas county line along U.S. Highway 20.

Baird said that even though the FAA could chip in up to $100 million and $100 million could be raised through hangar fees, rental car enterprises and other revenue, the public would have to contribute $100 million through levies or bonds.

Bellevue City Councilman Dave Hattula said the steep price just might be the right choice for Blaine County, and Bellevue in particular.

"It's going to be up to all of us to buck up and realize what that tax burden will be," he said.

Former Bellevue City Administrator Tom Blanchard said he thinks the community would support a levy if there was a guarantee the airport would be built.

Residents broached the subject of asking some of Blaine County's better-known or more affluent visitors to help replace the airport. Bellevue-area resident and Mountain School owner Kate Woods said Sun Valley's second-home owners could afford to chip in.

"Those people spend [$100 million] on a vacation," she said.

Guy Pere, Bellevue resident and pilot, cited one of the region's favorite big-name visitors as a potential funding source as well.

"Have you talked to Bruce Willis?" he asked Airport Authority members.

Baird said the authority had not contacted Willis, nor had it been asked to by the FAA.

Barring a sudden cash infusion, Baird and the Airport Authority board members suggested the best short-term solution would be to make incremental improvements at the current airport.

Though no cost estimates have been developed, Baird said, the costs were likely to be far below the $300 million for a new airport and would be eligible for some FAA funding.

Improvements could lower the minimum approach ceilings to 1,000 feet, which Baird said could cut diversions by 50 percent.

The major suggested improvement is shifting the runway 1,500 feet toward Bellevue, with the acquisition of about 185 acres of land from the Flying Hat Ranch south of the airport and relocation of the air traffic control tower.

Baird said FAA spokespeople have said the agency would not consider investing in airport improvements unless the reliability could be improved, which he said remains uncertain and would need more study.

But Hattula vehemently opposed any expansion of the existing site, saying potential for accidents would skyrocket.

"We have been very lucky that a major accident has not occurred," he said. "If some major accident occurs, it's going to be someone we know, a family member or otherwise."

Chantrelle resident Cordingley said she doubted reliability could be improved at the current site, adding, "Last time I checked, the mountains have not moved."

She said she also has safety concerns and planned on opposing any expansion.

"If someone was to put an airport in your backyard, I would hope every one of you would be right where I am, fighting against it with all you have," she said. "[I] will not live in a community that does not care about the members that sustain it."

Baird admitted that improvements at the current airport would not solve long-term problems, but that the recession and the changing status of sage grouse under federal regulations may require compromise.

"No decisions or conclusions have been made at this time," Baird said. "We're simply gathering information. A replacement airport is not off the table."

Bellevue Mayor Chris Koch said that no matter what the final decision is, the city needs a seat at the table.

"We are impacted," he said. "We would like some sort of up-close information. Not reading about it in the newspaper, but to be on the board."

The next meeting of the Airport Authority will take place Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 5:30 p.m. at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

Katherine Wutz:

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