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New alternative chosen for county airport improvements

 

Commissioners prefer airport runway extension

By Michael Howell

Last Friday, October 19, the Ravalli County Commissioners chose a new option for the future development of the county airport that will involve extending the runway to 5,200 feet in length.

Possible extension of the runway has been controversial since the issue was initially broached in the late 1990’s. In 1998, Carter-Burgess, the engineering company involved in conducting an Environmental Analysis (EA) of the options suggested that commissioners poll the citizens about the issue and reported that more than 80 percent of the respondents opposed an expanded airport. The company recommended that commissioners not go forward with expansion plans because public opposition was too great. As a result, in 2001 the commissioners adopted a resolution requiring a public vote before the runway could ever be extended.

Later, however, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began pushing the commissioners to address the safety problem of having a runway too close to an existing taxiway. As a result, in 2009 another EA was begun. Controversy ensued and a group in opposition to airport expansion was formed called Interested Citizens Against Airport Runway Expansion (ICAARE). Supporting airport expansion was the Ravalli County Airport Safety Foundation and the Airport Board.

Following a long and drawn out EA process lasting over 18 months the commission at the time finally approved in 2010 a “Preferred Alternative” called 2A which would involve keeping the runway at a 4,200 foot length. It did involve closing the airport during the reconstruction process which involved tearing up the existing runway and rebuilding one with the required separation distance from the taxiway. A third set of alternatives involved moving the existing runway to the north and would not require closing the airport during construction. A fourth set of alternatives involved extending the length of the runway to 5,200 feet.

Although Alternative 2A was approved as the “Preferred Alternative” and gained the necessary approval by the FAA, when it came time to publish the decision in the Federal Register the current board of commissioners declined to do so and instead decided to reconsider the alternatives. They also repealed the resolution requiring a public vote on the issue.

According to unofficial minutes of last Friday’s meeting, Commissioner Ron Stoltz expressed opposition to the 2A Alternative because it entailed closing down the airport during reconstruction, a negative impact that he found unacceptable. He also felt like the third set of alternatives did not provide enough future hangar space and said the fourth set of alternatives offered the best plan to meet future needs.

Commission chair Suzy Foss was in agreement.

Stoltz was critical of Alternatives 4 and 4A and preferred Alternative 4B, although it would still require moving the Stock Farm Road.

Commissioners J.R. Iman and Jeff Burrows both expressed agreement, primarily because it moved the runway farther from the developed subdivision to the south of the runway and was therefore safer.

There was public comment on both sides of the issue.

Jack Tuholske, attorney for ICAARE, in a letter urged the commissioners to postpone selecting a preferred alternative until an EA is published, all the data is available, and the public has a chance to meaningfully participate in the process. He was critical of the figures being used to forecast the increase in airport use. He called them unreliable and based on outmoded predictions of continued population growth. He said that there is no real demand for a 5,200-foot runway based on current use and no reasonable basis to anticipate future use.

“There may be a few millionaires that want to land their private jets, but the public’s money is not best used to facilitate the convenience of a few people,” wrote Tuholske. He states that the reliance of the analysis on the fuel logs is faulty and objects to the data not being made available for inspection.

“To now claim the flight logs are proprietary when they are being used to justify a public decision is wrong,” wrote Tuholske. “Your use of them to justify expenditure of public funds has moved the documents into the public realm. NEPA requires full disclosure of the underlying data and you are just guaranteeing even more delay by withholding it. My clients will pursue that data by other means unless you are willing to provide it to them. I urge you to reconsider your position on the matter.”

Tuholske also believes that the cost estimates being used are flawed.

“Your current cost estimates are half of earlier estimates, without any explanation,” he wrote. “Given that fiscal responsibility is the benchmark of sound governance, before you put the taxpayers of the County on the hook for its share of the airport, you should do a thorough fiscal analysis and explain your revisions in budget projections.”

Doug McLaren, President of the Ravalli County Aviation Safety Foundation (RCASF), submitted a letter asking the commissioners to consider their obligation to make the airport legally compliant with all FAA rules, regulations, and advisories and choose a runway configuration that will be safe for 95 to 100 percent of the aircraft that use the facility. He urged them to choose the option that best allows economic development of the airport. McLaren also stated that “in the interest of public and aviation safety, it is (the RCASF’s) goal to fund the county’s financial obligation with respect to the improvements of our airport through grants and private donations.” It is a pledge the group made during the previous EA considerations as well.

According to the unofficial minutes of the meeting, Commissioner Stoltz noted that some costs of the proposal cannot be negotiated until they have a preferred alternative such as the cost of the land purchases involved in some of the alternatives.

Commissioner Burrows expressed concern about the negotiations leading to the preferred alternative being too expensive and having to start the EA process all over again.

Commissioner Stoltz stated that the commission is just picking a “preferred alternative” that best meets the county’s need and that all alternatives go through the EA process.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of the 4A alternative being the preferred.

According to Commissioner Burrows, the set of alternatives along with the commissioners’ selection of a “preferred alternative” will be returned to the engineering firm Peccia and Associates for analysis and then presented for more public comment as the process continues.
“There will plenty of opportunity for the public to comment on this as it goes through the NEPA process towards a final decision,” said Burrows.

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