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Stevensville Airport: past, present and future


By Michael Howell

Last December 20, 2012, the Town of Stevensville annexed the Stevensville airport property into the town limits. This was the culmination of an eight-decade long relationship with Ravalli County in Stevensville Airport affairs.

According to an historical report researched and prepared by Airport Board Chairman Ron McCann and then Airport Manager Don Misevic, by 1930, when the area was first beginning to be used as an airport, Ravalli County had become the owner of the land in the area “mainly by virtue of non-payment of taxes by the landowners.” Then, in 1932, the County Commissioners signed a three-year lease for 60 acres with the Town of Stevensville, for a period of three years. The lease specifically noted that the land was to be used as an airport. One year later the Town of Stevensville signed another lease with the County for 100 acres for five years with the same stipulation that it be used as an airport. According to the report, by 1945 all the land currently occupied by the airport was declared to be property of the County due to forfeiture by its owners.

In the succeeding years the County authorized a Joint Airport Board made up of five members. The Board was responsible for both the Stevensville and Hamilton Airports, and all agreements involving the airports involved the County, the Town of Stevensville and the City of Hamilton.

In the late 1970’s the Stevensville Airport began to work closely with the federal government and a project was proposed to construct a new runway involving some land acquisition. It was a $470,657 project with 95% to be funded by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. The County would have to come up with the matching portion of that grant, about $42,787. But a lot of county taxpayers didn’t want to support the project. According to the historical report, a citizen’s petition was submitted to stop the expenditure. A judge ordered the County to put it on a public ballot. The report states that the results of the ballot were two to one to stop the project.

“There was no indication of how this decision was reversed, but the project went ahead,” states the report.

Not long afterwards, in late 1979, the Town of Stevensville asked the County for clear title to the airport including assets and liabilities. Legal negotiations began and the County terminated the Joint Resolution of 1947 and dissolved the Joint Airport Board.

A few months later, in early 1980, the County deeded the airport property to the Town of Stevensville excepting and reserving the county’s right to retake possession and ownership of the property in the event that the town attempts to convey it without written consent of the county, “or the property is no longer used as a public airport.”

Since that time the Town of Stevensville has worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in establishing and implementing a Capital Improvement Program that has included runway and taxiway construction and other improvements. Historically the FAA covered 95% of the project cost, requiring a 5% local match. The Town of Stevensville would usually get an accompanying grant from the Montana Aeronautics Division for 2.5% of the project cost and end up covering only 2.5% of the project cost in the end. Those matching funds were supplied through loans, grants and airport user fees. Over a thirty-year period, a total of $3.69 million was spent on airport improvements. The Town of Stevensville’s contribution amounted to $229,407.23.

Recently, however, the FAA changed its funding formula from 95% with a 5% local match to 90% with a 10% match. This change came midway in the Town’s efforts at getting grant money for a planned taxi lane improvement project. The Town applied for and received an FAA grant for the project. It also applied for and received a grant from the Montana Aeronautics Division (MA) to cover 2.5% of the cost. But the bids that came in were over the estimated costs and the Town balked at moving forward with the project. In the meantime the scope of the project changed to include a beacon.

Currently the FAA grant for the estimated $331,135 project is still good for $298,021. So is the initial grant from MA for $7,250. But prior to proceeding, the Town decided to go back to MA and ask for an additional $9,307 due to the change in the FAA funding formula. Stevensville Airport Manager Steve Knopp told the Town Council last week that he had heard from the state that their request for additional funds would not be granted, although the agency would consider a loan.

According to Town Councilor and Airport Board member Ron Klaphake, the denial of the grant request would not stop the project. He said that there was enough money in the airport fund to go forward with the project without the grant and possibly without taking a loan.

“We have enough in the airport’s reserve funds right now to do this project but we are trying to stretch those funds to meet the upcoming costs for some very big projects in the future. That’s why we asked for the grant from Montana Aeronautics,” said Klaphake.

The current Capital Improvement Plan, said Klaphake, calls for widening of the runway from 60 feet to 75 feet in width and extending it in length an additional 1,000 feet. It also includes a complete pavement overlay of the existing runway. He said the aim is to accomplish this by 2016 and the projected cost is about $3.2 million.

“We looked at this and realized that we would need to come up with more revenue,” said Klaphake. “That’s how we came up with the idea of annexing the property into the town and subsequently creating a Tax Increment Financing District. It was to create that revenue.”

Knopp agreed. He said, “The annexation is a stepping stone to creating a Tax Increment Financing District at the Airport.” He said the creation of the TIFD will mean that taxes paid on any future development at the airport, such as new hangars and potential commercial lot development associated with the taxi lane extension project and other planned improvements, will be retained by the airport.

“Once the TIFD goes into place we may have more money to operate with than we do currently,” said Knopp.

Klaphake, who was instrumental in developing the annexation plan and getting it implemented, said that creating the TIFD at the airport should go faster than the Industrial TIFD created north of Town involving Selway Corporation and several other property owners.

“The number of property owners that had to be consulted, coordinated and brought into agreement to create that district took a lot of time,” said Klaphake. “Here we have only one owner, the Town of Stevensville. As a result it should move much smoother and quicker.” He said he hoped to have the district in place by the end of this year.

Knopp said that the improvements projected in the CIP would take the Stevensville Airport to B-2 status and allow for bigger, heavier airplanes to land there.

Knopp noted that as Missoula continues to grow the Stevensville Airport will get busier. He said flight trainers in Missoula like to use the Stevensville Airport in part because it has no control tower. He said, that way they can work more with their students without having to deal constantly with control tower communications.

“It’s really a busy place,” he said. “The use is amazing considering its size.”

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