Turbulence Ahead for Airport, KGEZ Standoff

By Beacon Staff

At its most recent meeting, the Kalispell City Council voted 6-3 to purchase a little more than a half acre of property on the south end of town at a cost of $332,000 to allow for the future expansion of the city airport. While the vote was relatively uncontroversial and the meeting sparsely attended, the land acquisition signaled that Kalispell is still moving full speed ahead with its plans to expand the city airport.

But until the city can resolve its long-running dispute with KGEZ radio talk show host and station owner John Stokes – whose transmission towers intrude on federal safety airspace at the south end of the airport’s runway – Kalispell can’t receive funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for land purchases and construction.

City Airport Manager Fred Leistiko said a plan is now in place to “mitigate” the tower problem by building new towers about two miles south of the old ones – and the city intends to put Stokes on notice of its plans within the next 30 days with a letter.

“We are going to move those towers; there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Leistiko said. “This won’t stop us.”

If Stokes objects to the city’s decision, Leistiko said, the city will seek a court order to replace the towers under its right of eminent domain. Leistiko is confident even if the case is appealed to the state Montana Supreme Court, the city will prevail – though it could be a year or longer of legal wrangling before Kalispell can proceed with its airport expansion.

Leistiko sees the plan as the best way to relieve the safety hazard posed by the towers at the end of the runway and allow KGEZ to continue broadcasting, while the city can avoid having to buy a part, or all, of the radio station for more than it is worth.

“He’s going to get new equipment, that we’ll cover, but it doesn’t put cash in his pocket,” Leistiko added. “It will be solved by this time next year, hopefully.”

It was widely reported in September of last year that Stokes put his 6.65 acres of land up for sale, including the station, asking $4 million. The move was touted as the end of a tumultuous era in the Flathead by local media, but as of last week, Stokes continued to broadcast his daily talk show. Stokes did not respond to an inquiry by the Beacon seeking information as to whether the station is still for sale and for comment on the city’s proposal to replace the towers.

Even if someone does buy the station, Leistiko said, it won’t change the city’s plan to replace the towers, if a new owner wants to keep the radio station.

“There’s no such thing as grandfathering in a safety hazard,” Leistiko said. “It just doesn’t work.”

There will be 30 days to negotiate once Kalispell issues Stokes its letter of intent, and the city could work out a deal to pay him after the towers are down. But based on the prices Stokes has previously sought for the land and station, Leistiko does not anticipate the city and Stokes agreeing on a deal, nor is the city interested in purchasing it.

Leistiko estimates the cost of constructing new towers and establishing the new microwave transmitters back to the radio station could be done for under $400,000, and set up through an easement or long-term lease on two sites – one of which is privately owned and the other is property of the Lakeside sewer district. That’s significantly cheaper than the $670,000 Stokes’s property was appraised for in 2003.

At the May 5 meeting, it was clear several city councilors were hesitant about continuing to purchase land around the airport while the radio tower problem is unresolved, setting up a “chicken-or-the-egg” conundrum. They said they wouldn’t feel more confident about the airport expansion until the city sees some FAA reimbursement, and the FAA won’t reimburse until the towers are gone.

“This whole thing is nothing but a ‘what if’ project,” Councilman Bob Hafferman told City Manager Jim Patrick while debating the land buy. “I cannot understand one bit of where it benefits the city of Kalispell taxpayer; in fact it can be a liability.”

The council members who argued in favor of the land purchase said the city needs to maintain its commitment to the airport expansion, a project that has been in the works for years.

“The whole airport improvement thing has been bouncing around since the previous city manager … this isn’t new,” Councilwoman Kari Gabriel said. “I think it would be quite prudent to buy the property … so that we actually own property that gets us to our airport.”

Patrick did his best to reassure the council that the commitment from the FAA to fund the expansion is real, and that the city “anticipates having something going on with the towers this summer.”

Once the towers are out of the way, the city plans to build a new runway for the airport that is 4,700 feet long and 75 feet wide, compared to the current runway’s 3,600-foot length and 60-foot width. The expansion would also include a taxiway for planes arriving or departing, new hangar space, and a “fixed base operation center” that provides fuel, maintenance, a pilot lounge and possibly flight instruction. The construction of a modest terminal, roughly 2,000 square feet in size, is also possible.

Kalispell has purchased three pieces of land surrounding the airport necessary for the expansion, and Leistiko estimated that roughly 10 other parcels need to be purchased. Most of these property owners, he added, have been receptive to the city’s plans so far.

Leistiko said the FAA will pay for 95 percent of the costs involved in expanding the airport because the amount of traffic from pilots in Northwest Montana is increasing so rapidly, and there needs to be a larger backup runway for Glacier International Airport, which is also seeing a lot of traffic. The expanded runway will allow planes weighing 14,000 pounds to land; the current weight limit is 12,500 pounds.

“The FAA is supporting this because Kalispell and the Flathead Valley are growing rapidly and there are a lot of recreational pilots coming here,” he said. “They say it generates enough traffic that the expense is justified.”

Leistiko provided an e-mail message from Gary Gates, airport engineer and planner for the FAA district office in Helena, which said a 2009 grant is available for the tower mitigation if completed by June of next year, and federal reimbursement for the land acquisition in 2010.

But until then, a final showdown between Kalispell and Stokes over the radio towers appears imminent.

“By July of next summer,” Leistiko said, “the towers will be down and we’ll be into the next phase of this.”

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