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County moving forward on airport land acquisition

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners voted on December 27, 2017 to move forward with the process of obtaining an appraisal for purposes of establishing the fair market value of the properties adjacent to the Ravalli County Airport. The acquisition of these lands would be required to complete the current plans for improvement and extension of the runway. The cost of the appraisal has been estimated at $58,445. The Environmental Assessment (EA) of the proposed improvement project that was approved by the county commission last January remains tied up in litigation filed by Informing Citizens About Airport Runway Extension (ICAARE). That case is currently under appeal at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The elephant in the room at the meeting was the potential forced acquisition of the land by Eminent Domain proceedings in the face of a landowner unwilling to sell. Owner of most of the land under consideration, Harold Mildenberger, notified the Commissioners last July that his property was “not for sale. Period.” But in October, another letter was presented to the commissioners signed by both Harold and Brad Mildenberger outlining a plan in which eight acres of land would be donated by them for a “scaled down” version of the improvements involving a shorter runway of only 4,600 to 4,700 feet in length as opposed to the 5,200 foot long runway that was approved as the preferred option in the current Environmental Assessment, which would require the purchase of about 126 acres.

According to Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht, who spoke at the meeting concerning the process for procuring property for the airport, the next step in the process was to get an appraisal of the property done in terms of standards set out by federal government guidelines in order to determine the fair market value of the property. He said the landowner has the opportunity to accompany that appraisal and have input to that appraisal.

“Once that’s done, then the appraised value can be used as the basis for negotiations first between, in this case, the County and the landowners, to see if the property can be acquired on the basis of the appraisal through some sort of negotiated process. Then, if that is not possible, the appraisal is used in an Eminent Domain proceeding,” said Recht. He said neither the negotiations for purchase nor the Eminent Domain process could begin without an appraisal being done first. He said that, according to federal and state guidelines, an initial offer must be made for the property and officially rejected by the landowner before the Eminent Domain process could be initiated.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that the FAA had informed him that the commissioners should go forward with the process of implementing the EA with the 5,200-foot runway extension. Although the issue is in court, no injunction has been requested or granted and the preferred alternative has been chosen. Any changes to that, at this point, according to Burrows, would be at the county’s expense. Burrows added that the cost of the appraisal would not be reimbursable by the FAA unless the property was actually acquired.

Dennis Moore, a member of the public, emphasized in his comments to the commissioners that they had a choice and could get the FAA to back the scaled down project being offered by the Mildenbergers. He told the commissioners that if they could come to some agreement with the landowners about implementing the scaled down version, which resembles the alternative that was being supported by ICAARE during the EA process, that ICAARE would drop its lawsuit against the FAA that is pending in the Court of Appeals. A member of the Board at the meeting confirmed that offer.

Moore suggested that with the scaled down version and no pending lawsuits the county could go forward with airport improvements and break ground this spring on airport improvements that would adequately address the county’s concerns about the airport for a much lower price of about $4 to $5 million with no cost to local taxpayers. He questioned whether the “black money” being promised by an unidentified source through the Airport Safety Foundation would actually come through. The amount required could come to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the proposed $15 million project.

Brad Mildenberger defended his latest proposal for a resolution. He said the decision to go for the full blown improvements proposed in the 4B Alternative that include a 5,200-foot runway would, if it were put to a vote of the public, “go down 9 to 1.”  He said getting the appraisal done on the 4B option will leave the commission “in the position of having to go after Eminent Domain.”

“I’ll tell you if that [Eminent Domain] went to a public vote it would go down 99 to 1… The fact is, it’s not about dollars and cents…” He said that his family did sell some land to the airport in the past for expansion, “but this piece of land, the entranceway to that ranch (the Stock Farm), it’s not worth spoiling for any amount of money.” He agreed that the runway needed to be improved for safety reasons but said that a 4,600- to 4,700 -foot runway, as he is proposing, would do the job and preserve the ranch. It would involve cutting into a hillside and he was willing to pay for a study to see how deep that cut would have to be.

Mildenberger said that by approving the appraisal of the land involved in the 4B Alternative, the commissioners would be committing themselves to the use of Eminent Domain because his family was not going to sell. He admitted that an Eminent Domain action by the county would be difficult for him to win. He said 85% to 95% of Eminent Domain cases are won by the government.

“But at what price?” he asked. “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t think I could win it.” He said that he did not believe the county could prove enough on the economic development side to justify the use of Eminent Domain.

Commissioner Chris Hoffman, who made the motion to go forward with the appraisal, defended it, saying, “To me this comes down as what is right and what is wrong for the community. What does the community need in terms of the Ravalli County Airport? Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the alternative that has been brought forward at the eleventh and a half hour addresses all the issues that I see as important in making this determination.” He said the decision was not about breaking ground tomorrow but about the next step in an ongoing process that has been underway for decades, and that is to get an appraisal.

“That gets us on to the next step in the process, whatever it will be, and I don’t really want to speculate about it,” said Hoffman. “What I want as a taxpayer and a citizen is an airport that addresses certain needs.” The first, he said, was public safety and the safety of the airport and the people using it and flying in and out.

“We know that a King Air Plus is not going to land if conditions are not optimal,” he said. “That’s a public safety issue for me.” Secondly, he said, there are the firefighting efforts based at the airport.

“A shorter runway will not answer those questions for me satisfactorily,” said Hoffman. “Finally, I believe that the airport potentially will be a key and critical piece of economic infrastructure in this community and it’s for that reason that I made the motion and will vote to go ahead with this process at this point in time.”

Commissioner Ray Hawk agreed that not enough was known about the landowner’s latest offer, but he also noted that “the FAA has been as wobbly as the landowners on all this.”

Hoffman said, “To my way of thinking we are through the EA and it was not something settled on by the County Commissioners so many years ago, this is what the community settled on. This is what we believed was going to fly. Now we’ve got the EA and here we go looking at other alternatives and that is what is going to put us back in a bureaucratic mess. The next step in the process is the appraisal.”

“There’s decisions to be made after that appraisal is done,” he said. “My understanding and my reading is that the appraisal process is over-bloated and actually appears to be way too much money, but the bottom line is it’s the cost of doing business at this juncture and that’s why I think we simply have to move forward.”

Commissioner Doug Schallenberger said, “I don’t like taking Brad’s land. I wouldn’t like them taking my land, but the flip side of that is I don’t think it’s fair to give the citizens of Ravalli County an airport that is not what we think we need.” He said the safety reasons were a main concern. He said it’s not right, perhaps, for one landowner to take the brunt of the development, but on the other hand he didn’t think it was right for one landowner to control the whole deal.

“We wouldn’t be here without the landowner giving us some idea that he would agree to the 4B configuration,” said Hoffman. “That was my understanding from the beginning.”  He said he did not consider it a “taking” if fair market value is being paid for the property.

“It will be up to him in the end if he will accept that offer,” said Hoffman. “I’m not hearing that the next step is a taking of land from a private landowner in the Bitterroot Valley. If I had to make that decision today, I would be hard put to decide, but that’s not the decision we are making today.”

Burrows said that it was a difficult thing for him to vote on this because there was an offer from the landowner.

“I know where a yes vote goes because I know the Mildenbergers and they have an offer on the table and say they are not going to sell at any price,” he said.

Hawk said, “There is no choice but to go forward now. We are kind of in a box here.”

The commissioners voted 4 to 0 (Commissioner Greg Chilcott was absent) to approve the award of the contract for an appraisal.

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