By Michael Howell
One thing that rang out loudly in the mostly loud public comment on the proposed adoption of new Airport Affected Area (AAA) regulations for the Stevensville Airport last week, was the sound of silence. Of the thirty-eight people who spoke, not a single person spoke in favor of the proposal.
This was the second public hearing to be held on the proposed AAA. The first was held on May 12, at Town Hall. Public comment was taken that drew some heavy criticism of the permit requirements. A meeting was also held by the County Commissioners where the commissioners heard from many county residents upset about being regulated by the Town of Stevensville without any representation. As a result the County Commissioners sent a letter to the Town asking them to consider establishing a Joint Airport Affected Area Board which would include the commissioners. Taking that public comment into account, the Town scheduled another public hearing to consider a second draft of the AAA which it believed addressed the substantive criticisms it had received. That meeting drew an overflow crowd that could not be accommodated and the meeting was rescheduled and held on Wednesday, June 25. It drew an even larger crowd that packed the much larger meeting room where it was held just outside of town.
Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack explained at the outset of the meeting that there was a zoning ordinance currently in effect that was adopted in 1989 under state law at the time. In 2005, however, the state laws under which the regulations were adopted were repealed. He said that in the original bill it did state that any regulations in place at the time would be “grandfathered” and would be valid under the law until they were changed. That language at some point was dropped from the MCA code, however, so that the code now stated only that a year after the repeal of the law airports would have to create an AAA ordinance under the new laws.
“It appears we have the option to keep the 1989 ordinance in place,” said Mim Mack to a burst of applause.
He said the discussion of adopting the proposed AAA was tabled at the last Council meeting and they were waiting on a legal determination concerning the establishment of a joint AAA board before moving forward.
The Mayor then went over some details concerning the current 1989 zoning ordinance that controls the affected area around the airport. The ordinance regulates and restricts the height of structures and objects of natural growth and the use of property in the vicinity of the airport by creating zones with regulations for each zone.
The zoning regulations state that obstructions pose a hazard to pilots and property or occupants of land in the vicinity and may affect existing and future instrument approach minimums. It finds an obstruction may also reduce the size of the areas available for landing, takeoff and maneuvering of aircraft, “thus tending to destroy or impair the utility of the Stevensville Airport and the public investment therein.”
“Accordingly, it is declared that creating an obstruction has the potential of being a public nuisance and may injure the region serving the airport” and that it is in the public interest that “obstructions that are a hazard to air navigation be prevented.” It goes on to state that “the preventions of these obstructions should be accomplished “to the extent legally possible, by the exercise of police power without compensation.” It is also noted in the 1989 document that the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners had failed to adopt or enforce any adequate airport zoning regulations and had refused to join in creating a Joint Airport Board.
The zones created by the 1989 zoning ordinance “includes all the land lying beneath the approach surfaces, transitional surfaces, horizontal surfaces, and conical surfaces as they apply to the Stevensville Airport.” An area located in more than one of these zones, depicted on the Town’s Airport Zoning Map, is considered to be in the zone with the more restrictive heights limitation. The ordinance sets the applicable height restrictions for each zone.
The 1989 zoning ordinance also contains use restrictions stating, “no use may be made of land or water within any zone established by this Ordinance in such manner as to create electrical interference with navigational signals or radio communication between the airport and aircraft, make it difficult for pilots to distinguish between airport lights and others, result in glare in the eyes of pilots using the airport, create bird strike hazards, or otherwise in any way endanger or interfere with the landing, takeoff, or maneuvering of aircraft intending to use the airport.”
With a few exceptions, “no material change shall be made in the use of land, no structure shall be erected or otherwise established, and no tree shall be planted in any zone hereby created unless a permit therefore shall have been applied for and granted.” Any non-conforming structure grandfathered in at the time would not be re-permitted if it was destroyed or abandoned. Any request for a variance would go before the Town’s Board of Adjustments.
The Mayor characterized the new proposed Ordinance #147 as “less restrictive.” He said all land use regulations in the old zoning ordinance had been eliminated and the zoning language removed. He said that while the ordinance currently in place requires permitting in every zone, the proposed ordinance shrinks the area governed by the permitting process and confines it to the zones at the approach zones at the end of each runway. He said that he had examined the AAA map and that the number of parcels possibly affected by the permitting requirements in the new zoning proposal was 12 to 15 properties in the zone at the west end of the runway and 12 to 15 off the east end of the runway. He said that due to the way the land drops off in elevation to the west that it was not likely that any of those properties would be affected.
The Mayor noted that in 1989 the County obviously declined to initiate any controls in the affected area and refused to participate in forming a joint board.
“Now they are offering to help create an AAA and we are seeking legal guidance from the Attorney General as to how to proceed,” said Mim Mack. He noted that even if the joint board is formed that it would be advisory and that the Town of Stevensville would still make any final decisions.
In the public comment period, former Airport Manager Don Misevic noted that the proposed AAA shows the affected area as it would be if the runway was extended 1,000 feet as is in the plan. A major refrain in the public comment was resistance to any expansion of the airport.
Jim Gryle, who helped draft the state legislation in 2005, said that he agreed with the Mayor that the compiler’s comments were part of the law and that the old zoning ordinance “carried the weight of law.” He said it was clarified by a legal case in Helena in 2009. He also said that there would be no direct financial impacts if this new ordinance was not adopted. He said the FAA did not have the power to force compliance, but could withhold funds.
State Representative Nancy Ballance urged the Town to accept participation by the County Commission on a joint board.
“Why would you refuse representation for citizens not represented by the Town Council? All citizens need representation,” said Ballance.
The need to have representation for affected citizens outside the Town became a major refrain in the public comments.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said, “The County Commissioners have plenty of conflict at the county level, to embrace more is the last thing we want to do. We offered and encouraged setting up a JAAA Board so county residents could enjoy the representation we offer. I urge you to invite us to the table to represent the citizens.”
Another major refrain was objection to any expansion of the airport and objection to the fact that the lengthening of the runway was included in the design of the AAA.
Many people also objected to not getting notice or not being contacted by the Town.
Ravalli County Planning Department manager Terry Nelson asked that the slide showing the AAA be put on the screen. He said that he went to the Stevensville Town website to see what was on there and this was all there was.
“I don’t know if this is the smoke or the mirrors,” he said.
He said the Town’s map was incorrect, “so if you would like, I’ve brought a map that’s correct.” The crowd applauded loudly as he delivered the map to the front table.
“Now, I work for the county and one of our functions is dealing with the flood plain. We have new flood plain maps coming out. When they first came out, given the legal requirement of putting an ad in the paper two weeks in advance, we did that. We also sent out letters to 1,500 affected owners. I believe there is a ton of owners affected here. We did not legally have to do that. We did it because that’s what we should do. I also had a neighbor that was upset that I had an outside light on. He came over and said, ‘Hey guy, can you turn that off?’ So the first thing I did was go to my lawyer to see if I legally had to turn it off and have him contact my neighbor’s lawyer. That’s what you just did to the County and I think it’s despicable.”
A few people also commented that the AAA and further development at the airport were going to depress property prices in the area.
In Council discussion, Councilor Ron Klaphake said the effort to produce a new AAA began under the mistaken impression that the current Airport Zoning Ordinance was invalid. He said it was recognized at the last Council meeting and the proposal was tabled. He said at this time it appears there is no reason to adopt it, but that it is prudent to wait for verification from the state.
“Frankly, I have no appetite to proceed with a new ordinance if the existing one is in fact valid,” said Klaphake. “Right now it is not on the agenda, but if the state agrees, we can put it on the agenda. As far as I am concerned, I’ll vote for it to go away, but it’s tabled now waiting on clarification.”
Councilor Jim Crews said, “I take this job pretty seriously. What we do affects everyone. I made a motion to table till we receive guidance from the state and, personally, I think the old ordinance is fine, myself.”
Mayor Mim Mack said, “The fact that we had a public hearing to hear from you shows that we take it seriously and that your public comment does make a difference to the process. That’s why we’re here. The idea that the Town Council had a secret agenda to somehow hide this from the public I believe is unfair. Otherwise we’d only have scheduled a single public hearing and let it go at that. That was the only legal requirement we had. But we didn’t do that. We tried to respond to the concerns of the citizens in the county that felt affected but not represented. That’s why we are here tonight.”