By Michael Howell –
In what has become a consistent effort at reversing major decisions made by the previous Board of County Commissioners, the current Board last week rescinded the decision made last November approving a plan for improvements to the county airport. Current board members claim it was just the wrong decision and are advocating an alternative that was rejected in the original decision making process.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spurred action concerning the status of the airport when it warned county officials that it considered the proximity of the runway to the taxiway to be a safety violation. The agency indicated that if the safety concerns were not addressed that federal funding for future runway paving projects could be in jeopardy. Following a highly controversial process that spanned close to a decade, the debate was finally narrowed to consideration of two alternatives designated as Alternative 2A and Alternative 3A.
The previous Board settled on the 2A option which would involve removing the existing runway and constructing a new one 90 feet to the east. Alternative 3A involves using the existing runway as a taxiway and constructing a new runway 126 to 130 feet further to the east. Neither option called for extending the runway beyond its current length of 4,200 feet. Both options involved moving the runway about 1,000 feet to the north, away from existing subdivision development south of the airport.
In a 4 to 0 vote (Commissioner Greg Chilcott was absent) the Commissioners decided to instruct the FAA not to publish the Finding of No Significant Impact and Record of Decision in the final Environmental Analysis (EA) for the project that named Alternative 2A as the preferred alternative, basically short-circuiting the process and nullifying the decision.
Most of the public comment that preceded that decision was in favor of approving the Record of Decision and going forward with the project.
Proponents of the 2A option warned that rescinding that option would take the county back to square one on making necessary safety improvements and consequently jeopardize future FAA funding for runway rehabilitation. They called Alternative 2A a “shovel ready” project, while reconsideration of other options would add significant delay and expense to the project. Some also criticized the Board’s recent decision not to take the question of airport expansion to a public vote.
Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher, who made the motion to rescind the previous decision approving Alternative 2A, admitted that there were many unanswered questions about Alternative 3A, including whether a new EA would be required or what that would cost. But he said what was clear is that Alternative 2A was the wrong decision, primarily because it required closing down businesses at the airport during construction while Alternative 3A did not.
“Why complete a process that is wrong,” said Kanenwisher, “when there is another option?”
Commissioner Suzy Foss agreed, saying that she ran her election campaign on this issue. She called economic development at the airport a key issue. She said that safety and financial issues dictate that Alternative 3A is the proper alternative. She also claimed that firefighting efforts were being hampered by the short runway length that restricted the loads that firefighting aircraft could carry.
Commissioner J.R. Iman, who originally voted against the 2A alternative when it was approved by the previous board, said that Alternative 2A involved “losing our biggest asset” by requiring the destruction of the existing runway. He also noted that 2A would require closing the airport businesses during construction and 3A would not. He said the only physical difference in the final outcome would be about 126 feet of difference in the location of the final runway to the east.
Iman also noted that the county had already expanded the airport once without a public vote when it purchased the Leonardi property for safety considerations. He called the resolution calling for a public vote on expansion “ambiguous.”
Commissioner Kanenwisher reiterated that 3A was “the right choice.” He said that the previous board had approved the 2A option in response to threats of a lawsuit.
“At what point are we taxpayers going to keep lying down to take that?” he asked.
One member of the public noted that the costs of Alternative 2A had been delineated, but the costs of 3A had not and could be significantly higher.
Commissioner Kanenwisher shot back, saying, “2A is a known quantity and it is a bad one. I’ve been elected to make decisions and 2A is the wrong proposal.”
Foss jumped in, stating that safety and finances will determine what’s best. She called Alternative 2A a “non-alternative” that the previous commission caved in to. She said that the FAA financing would not go away by considering another option.
“I was very clear in my stance on the airport and I got elected based on it,” she said.
The exchange between members of the public and the commissioners grew progressively more tense and testy.
Local pilot Dan DePauw, who has consistently supported Alternative 2A, accused the commissioners of showing a “lack of transparency.” He said they are trying to spend money that they don’t have and violating people’s property rights at the same time.
“I see a lot of conflicts of interest here,” said DePauw. He said that he didn’t know why the commissioners couldn’t get answers to their questions from the FAA when he could. He said the cost of doing another EA on Alternative 3A would cost the county at a minimum $50,000 and possibly up to $1 million.
Before discussion ended, both Kanenwisher and Foss apologized for the tone of their remarks but insisted on the correctness of their views.
DePauw said after the meeting, “The bottom line is, win or lose, I was sorely disappointed in the commissioners’ attitude.” He said that in his opinion the whole thing was obviously a pre-determined decision.
“We were dead on arrival at the meeting,” said DePauw, “and they were arrogant, disrespectful and showed their inexperience.”
Steve Engebrecht, from the FAA’s Helena office, said that if the commissioners are looking at another preferred option than the one already approved, the EA for the project would need to be re-written to show the new preferred alternative.
“They would need to hire somebody to update the EA,” said Engebrecht. He said he did not have any idea what level of analysis would be required. Morrison-Maierle, the company that did the original EA, has already made it known that it would not consider the job. Engebrecht said that another company would have to decide what portion, if any, of the last EA it would be willing to accept and defend. That would determine to some degree, he said, how much work would have to be done for the new EA.
Engebrecht said that the only safety issue that the FAA was looking at was the necessary separation distance between the runway and taxiway. He said that, in this regard, both the 2A and 3A options in the last EA were “equally safe” in that they provided the necessary separation distance of 240 feet. He said that there was no significant difference in the environmental issues involved in either option and either option would be acceptable from that standpoint.
As far as the time frame for coming into compliance with the safety standards goes, Engebrecht said that the FAA is not going to shut the airport down over such a violation, but that the agency would not participate in funding any runway improvements so long as it is in violation. He said that the studies of the runway that he has examined led him to conclude that the runway will need extensive re-habilitation to the asphalt within the next 10 years. He said that such repairs could easily cost up to $1 million and the FAA would not participate unless the separation distance between the runway and taxiway were adequate.
By Michael Howell –