City Taking First Steps Toward Moving KGEZ Towers

By Beacon Staff

After years of rhetoric between city officials and local talk radio broadcaster John Stokes, Kalispell is poised to take its first concrete steps toward moving the KGEZ station’s towers away from the city airport’s airspace.

Kalispell City Council voted 7-2 Monday to authorize Interim City Manager Myrt Webb to make a determination that the KGEZ radio towers are a safety hazard to planes taking off from and landing at the city airport, and a public need exists to move the towers. Webb and City Airport Manager Fred Leistiko will then make an offer to Stokes, the station owner, for the city to tear down the existing towers and build new ones further from the airport without disrupting his broadcasts.

Should Stokes refuse any such offer, the city can then choose to begin legal proceedings to condemn the towers. Stokes did not immediately return an e-mail and could not be reached at KGEZ for comment.

In talking about moving the KGEZ towers, council members brought up the many concerns and questions that have lingered over the issue of the airport expansion for the five years it has been under deliberation, including reluctance to be drawn into a prolonged legal battle with Stokes, and wariness as to whether long-promised federal funds to pay for much of the tower mitigation and airport expansion will, in fact, materialize.

Financing for the new towers would come from Airport Enterprise Funds, Airport Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds, and state and federal grants. Webb told the council no general fund money would be used toward the airport expansion.

Councilmen Bob Hafferman and Tim Kluesner voted against clearing the way for tower mitigation, with Hafferman stating his position that condemnation was not appropriate in this circumstance, because the conflict over the towers is essentially between two distinct groups: city airport users and KGEZ’s employees and audience.

“I am opposed to condemnation,” Hafferman said. “We’re not talking about serving the public interest, we’re talking about serving special interests, and there’s a great deal of difference between serving the public interest and serving the special interests.”

Kluesner complained that the Airport Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district was preventing large sums of tax dollars from helping out the general fund at a time when the city is slashing its budget to avoid making job cuts, and he questioned who in Kalispell would benefit from the city airport expansion beyond the people and business directly involved with it.

“I feel like we’re gambling and we’re rolling the dice as if this will ever come to fruition,” Kluesner said. “I’m not ready to gamble with the taxpayers’ money right now.”

“I see the airport TIF as a serious drain on the city’s funds right now…I can’t justify that drain,” he added. “The FAA and the city staff, they do want a bigger airport and that’s fine, but I don’t think the citizens of Kalispell do.”

Councilman Hank Olson countered that the city has impact studies from several years ago showing that the airport brings millions of dollars into the local economy.

“We’ve been down all these roads that I think you guys are referring to,” Olson said. “I think we’ve got to move forward, and see where this takes us.”

Webb reassured the council that all the resolution really authorized him to do was establish a public need to move the towers, and go talk to Stokes about the issue. He and Leistiko would have to approach the council before the city takes any further measures.

Council members also referred to a memo from Stokes where he pointed out FAA regulations that require the city to appraise the entire KGEZ property before taking any mitigation or condemnation measures. City Attorney Charlie Harball said because the city was only interested in moving the broadcast towers, Kalispell is not required to conduct a full appraisal of the property, but can move forward with an appraisal of the towers determined by broadcast engineers.

But while the measure cleared by a wide margin, some council members are clearly concerned that the city could be in for some legal surprises from Stokes.

“I can see where this is going, and we’re going to be tied up for years and years in court,” Hafferman said.