Friday, March 15, 2013

Airport board ends 1 study, plans another

Site selection tied to improvement project

Express Staff Writer

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority is preparing to oversee a new study to identify a replacement site for the Hailey facility, above. Photo by Mountain Express

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority continued what airport staff called “relentless forward progress” Tuesday, approving motions to end one study for a replacement airport and begin another one within the next six months.

The authority board voted unanimously to request that the Federal Aviation Administration terminate the environmental impact statement for a replacement airport. The study considered the impacts of airport construction on several sites across Blaine County.

The EIS was suspended in August 2011, due to what the FAA said were wildlife and cost considerations. Two seriously considered sites, 10A and 12, were in sage grouse habitat, and local conservation organizations and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game submitted comments expressing concern. The FAA estimated at that time that it would cost $314 million to build an airport on Site 12 near the Blaine-Camas county line. No further estimates have been done was $285 million.

Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird wrote in a presentation given to the authority Tuesday that terminating the EIS would free up Airport Improvement Program funds, which are federal grants available to public airports for planning and development.

All county and city representatives voted on the issue, despite concerns from County Commissioner and authority member Larry Schoen last month, who said that the joint powers agreement governing the authority gives the county sole voting power over all votes related to a replacement airport. 

Airport attorney Barry Luboviski said he believed the vote should be a joint one, due to the fact that the study was commissioned by the entire authority and included the existing airport in its scope.

“My gut feeling is it’s a joint matter,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting, adding that the authority might want to consider reworking the agreement to make that section clearer.

Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle explained his “aye” vote to his constituents that were present, saying that while the EIS process has been important to him, it’s important to move forward with the replacement airport process.

“I know there are some of you in the audience today who are passionate about the EIS, and I understand because I am as well,” he said. “[But] the FAA has told us in no uncertain terms that they are not going to allow us to move forward unless the EIS is terminated and we move forward a different way.”

The authority also voted to move forward with a site selection study, which would be a study conducted in conjunction with the FAA to determine what sites, if any, could be suitable for a replacement airport.

A study completed in 2006 identified 16 possible sites for a replacement airport, including extensive expansion into the Flying Hat Ranch south of the current site—an option that the city of Hailey has adamantly opposed in the past.

Haemmerle moved on Tuesday that the beginning of a site selection process should be linked to the completion of plans for improvements at the current airport site.

The authority had previously approved a plan that would allow for the airport to meet C-III compliance regarding the runway safety area, or the area around the runway that must be kept absolutely clear of all obstacles larger than 3 inches high to provide a safe landing and takeoff surface for aircraft.

The plan involves moving the existing taxiways and making other adjustments to meet the safety guidelines by a congressionally mandated deadline of December 2015.

Upon a motion made by Haemmerle on Tuesday, the board decided that the beginning of the site selection process—which the FAA has already agreed to help with—should start on or about Oct. 1, the date, Baird said, that plans for changes at the current airport would be complete.

But the plans for the airport improvements have undergone some changes. Original concepts for improvements limited aircraft that will be able to use the airport to planes with wingspans smaller than 100 feet, because of a weight limit on the runway that limits aircraft to less than 95,000 pounds. There are no aircraft on the market with wingspans larger than 100 feet that weigh less than 95,000 pounds.

Dave Mitchell, corporate vice president of T-O Engineers, said the FAA asked him to add language to concepts that would provide for the possibility of future aircraft that meet the airport’s weight limit while exceeding the wingspan limit.

Mitchell said planes with larger wingspans could be accommodated with operational procedures, much as large plans are now accommodated at the airport.

Baird said aircraft with wingspans slightly larger than 100 feet could be allowed under the proposed operational procedures, though planes significantly wider would likely be turned away from the airport no matter their weight.

The changes were approved by the board Tuesday. Baird estimated that the planning would cost around $693,000, paid for by federal Airport Improvement Program funds.

Kate Wutz:

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