Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Airport sites could be back on table

Staff: New study is unlikely to yield new sites

Express Staff Writer

This map shows the 16 sites originally under consideration for a replacement for Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Though only three of those sites were considered by the FAA in its latest study, most could be back on the table in a new, upcoming siting study.

Though a siting study for a replacement airport seems to be on the horizon for the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, a new study might not come up with any new sites for consideration.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said that even though the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to help the authority find a site for a replacement airport, the process would use information gathered during a 2006 site analysis and feasibility study and in a draft environmental impact statement that considered several alternative sites.

“We’re not going to go back to ground zero and start over again,” he said. “[The FAA] made it real clear that they’re willing to help us, but they’re not going to spend a lot of money.”

Using the information from the previous studies would save both time and resources, he said, and make use of the knowledge that the Airport Authority and the FAA already have regarding potential airport sites in Blaine County and outside it.

What might change, however, are the criteria that the community is looking for in an airport. The draft EIS for a replacement airport available on the Friedman Memorial Airport website states that the county wants an airport that conforms to all FAA design standards for the aircraft operating at the airport, that has approach minimums of 200 feet rather than the current 1,800 feet for standard GPS and that is able to expand to meet passenger demand and potential for growth.

“Would a review of all of the material reveal any new sites? Probably not,” Baird said. But, he added, what the county wants in a replacement airport could change, opening the possibility of considering previously discarded sites.

 The 2006 study contemplated the possibility of building a replacement airport at one of 16 potential sites scattered across Blaine County and into Camas and Lincoln counties.

Seven of those sites—five of which are in Blaine County—were found to have few initial flaws that would have restricted air access, and an advisory committee formed in 2004 recommended to the authority that one site in Lincoln County, one in Camas County and three across southern and western Blaine County should be considered.

Baird said the Airport Authority’s preferred site was Site 10, located in southern Blaine County in an area known as Sonner’s Flat. Site 12 near the Camas County line on Highway 20 and Site 4 in the Bellevue Triangle were also considered in the draft EIS.

Idaho Mountain Express archives show that Site 4 was eventually nixed because of high terrain that would prevent aircraft from making landing approaches with a 200-foot ceiling, as was required by the county’s statement.

While this process sounds relatively straightforward, Idaho Mountain Express archives show that the meetings were characterized by a good deal of emotional debate, in which some groups argued that the process was ineffective, that a site just south of the city of Bellevue should be reconsidered and that the two-year process was being “rushed.”

The main crux of the argument was that airports farther south than the Bellevue Triangle were so distant that airlines would not be willing to serve the area fully, and travelers might choose to fly in and out of Boise instead.

Now most of those sites could be back on the table—though when a site will be chosen is still up in the air, Baird said.

“How the board chooses to approach the FAA about this question is up to the board,” he said.

At a meeting last week, authority members Larry Schoen and Fritz Haemmerle clashed over when to start a site study; Schoen argued that the community should plan for how to pay for a new airport first, while Haemmerle argued that a site study should start as soon as possible.

Schoen said during an interview that he believes a site outside of Blaine County might be the best solution in the future, as a new airport is an expensive project for a small community to shoulder alone.

He said that even if other communities such as Lincoln County or the city of Twin Falls would be willing to work with Blaine County on a regional airport, the problem of funding still exists.

“Until this community establishes its willingness and means of paying for a replacement airport, I think it’s important before we do a great deal more work on site selection that we establish the community’s willingness and means for paying for it,” he said. “There is no perfect solution.”

But Haemmerle argued last week that a site study is the next logical step, as the authority is united in getting the airport out of Hailey and building a more reliable one.

“Who you will work with is a subsequent question,” he said, not ruling out the possibility of developing a regional airport. “You go ahead and identify sites and that will tell you who you have to start talking to. I think everyone wants the airport out of the city of Hailey.”

Haemmerle also argued that certain restrictions—such as one eliminating head-to-head operations, or approaches and departures in the same direction—could be eliminated in order to open more sites up to consideration.

Most of all, he said, he just wants to know when the site selection study will commence.

“Tomorrow, the next year, when?” he asked. “Are [we] just going to kick the can down the road or what?”

Baird said the authority is moving forward and will soon have an answer to Haemmerle’s question.

“We know a lot about possible airport sites in Blaine County,” he said. “We know a lot about possible airport sites in eastern Camas County, and we know a lot about the area in and around the north end of Lincoln County.”

Baird said the authority’s agreement last month to support making improvements at the current site as a temporary solution was “huge,” and a much-needed step before decision-making begins on a siting study.

“We have a plan and we are moving forward,” he said.

The next Airport Authority board meeting is Tuesday, March 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

Kate Wutz:

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