Friday, December 30, 2011

Airport process back to square one

EIS delayed this year, valley residents protest expansion

Express Staff Writer

Everything done on the Friedman Memorial Airport replacement process came undone this year, as a draft environmental impact statement for the region's replacement airport was plagued with delays and eventual suspension.

The Federal Aviation Administration began the process of compiling an EIS for a new airport in 2006. The report was meant to study the impact on everything from floodplains and the economy to noise and historic sites—as well as that on wildlife, which became a major concern.

A February survey by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game determined that Site 10A, east of state Highway 75 and just north of the Blaine-Lincoln county line, contained an estimated 543 sage grouse. As mitigation for the habitat fragmentation that a new airport would cause, the department suggested that 1,880 acres of sagebrush habitat could be enhanced or created at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

But that number was a drop in the bucket compared to the soaring cost of airport construction, which reached $327 million in April. By August, the FAA suspended studies of the Friedman Memorial Replacement Airport EIS indefinitely, citing "increased anticipated costs of the project and potential impacts to wildlife."

That announcement sent county and city officials into a tailspin as they tried to determine what to do next. Airport authority Chair Tom Bowman said all 16 potential sites originally identified in a 2006 site selection and feasibility study would have to be revisited.

Other authority members suggested a more prudent approach would be to expand the airport at its current location.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said the county had three options when it came to expansion, and the option of expanding to the south and acquiring part of the Flying Hat Ranch got the most attention during a series of public meetings.


The issue of acquiring the Flying Hat Ranch through eminent domain was broached by a memo that Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said was released inadvertently at an October authority board meeting.

Schoen since called the memo premature, as no decisions regarding expansion had been made.

Nearly 130 Bellevue residents turned out at a public hearing in late October to protest any expansion of the current airport. Homeowners said the airport raised cancer rates in the area and diminished quality of life and safety.

"We have been very lucky that a major accident has not occurred," said Bellevue City Councilman Dave Hattula.

The public outcry prompted the city of Bellevue to formally request a seat on the Airport Authority board, a request that commissioners said might be unfair to Ketchum and Sun Valley. Both municipalities have previously requested a more formal role in airport decision-making, said Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, but have not been granted seats on the authority.

While the discussion is sure to continue through the upcoming year, Baird said he is currently in talks with SkyWest and Horizon airlines to determine if improving reliability at the current airport is possible without expansion.

The authority will also request the Federal Aviation Administration to consider allowing larger, faster aircraft, including regional jets, to land at the airport without further improvements.

Katherine Wutz:

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