Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hailey to request restart of airport relocation

City leaders open to ‘outside-the-fence’ expansion options

Express Staff Writer

The Hailey City Council unanimously agreed Monday to support long-term plans to relocate Friedman Memorial Airport, calling for the Federal Aviation Administration to restart an environmental impact study of alternative airport sites south of Hailey.

The council also agreed in the short term to explore ways to increase reliability at the airport, voicing unanimous support for working with the FAA to draw up an alternative airport layout plan for the current site.

More than 100 people crowded into Hailey City Hall on Monday to let the City Council and mayor know what they would like to see happen to the airport.

The council members and almost all speakers at the Monday meeting—a group that included past Hailey mayors, business leaders and county officials—agreed that commercial air service is critical to the transportation and economic needs of the Wood River Valley.

"Where we go from here is determined to a large extent by where the citizens want to go," said Mayor Fritz Haemmerle, who called the meeting to measure support for a 1994 municipal master plan preamble prioritizing relocation of the airport.

A move by Haemmerle to set city policy restricting any expansion of Friedman Memorial Airport "outside of the fence" of its current site to increase reliability was shot down by the council.

"If we draw a line in the sand, the FAA will see this as a 'do nothing' option and they will walk away from the table," Councilwoman Martha Burke said.

Burke and Councilman Don Keirn have seats on the five-member Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board of directors. Blaine County has an equal number of members on the board. Both jurisdictions appoint a fifth member.

The relocation effort started about a decade ago when the FAA told local officials that long-term changes should be planned to adhere to safety guidelines. However, last year the FAA suspended an EIS of alternative airport sites, directing the Airport Authority to explore options for increasing landing and takeoff reliability at the current site. Soaring costs and environmental impacts were cited as the primary reasons for the suspension.

The airport, which will celebrate its 80th year in operation this summer, has seen several enhancements and expansions over the years to permit landings and takeoffs during inclement weather. Further expansion efforts could include shifting the runway, lengthening it and/or providing impact mitigation plans such as one described by Sustain Blaine board member Evan Lawler on Monday.

"We could build the best sound wall [to deflect noise] that the world has ever seen," Lawler said.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said at Monday's meeting that he will release a report this month pointing out that reliability could likely be increased at the airport with new navigational equipment and ground support, increasing successful plane landings by 50 percent.

Baird said the airport layout plan could provide additional options for increasing reliability at the site, within about six months of beginning the process.

"We have not looked at [options] inside the fence, or minimally outside the fence, since 1994. To do that could net some solutions," Baird said.

Many Hailey residents spoke in favor of keeping the airport where it is because of its importance to the local economy.

"I can hear every plane that lands and I am in favor of keeping the airport," said Lisa Horowitz.

Others said the roar of jets is already causing problems.

"I don't smile and I don't see money when a conversation has to stop in my yard when a private jet flies over," said former Mayor Keith Roark.

Some raised concerns about allowing flight paths over Hailey north of the airport, especially if air carriers begin flying regional commercial jets into town. The northern path takes aircraft over two of the town's schools and the senior center.

"I will never be willing to sacrifice public safety for reliability," Haemmerle said.

Baird said expansion plans would have to be approved by both the Hailey and Blaine County members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority.

"The shovels don't go into the ground until both owners are in agreement," he said.

Tony Evans:

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