For more than a year, opposition to the reconfiguration and possible expansion of the Kalispell City Airport has been characterized by the sporadic complaints of one or two west side residents speaking up at city council meetings. But based on a meeting held last week at Flathead High School that drew more than 40 people, wariness and outright opposition to any expansion of the city airport appears to be growing.
Led by Steve Eckels and Scott Davis, two vocal critics of the airport expansion, the group called itself the Quiet Skies Committee. At the meeting, west side residents gathered to discuss their issues with the city airport, which ranged from irritation over the noise of the aircraft landing and taking off, to outright fear that a plane crash could occur over such a populated urban area including two schools – and that expanding the airport could increase the likelihood of that danger.
“This airport is a wonderful thing to have the way it is,” Winifred Storli said. “But we don’t need to compete with Glacier (Park) International Airport.”
“To me, this is a real waste of money and it’s just either an ego trip or a money trip,” she added.
Her comments were echoed by several others, some of whom wished for the airport to remain in its current state, and others who said it should be moved farther away from the city entirely.
“That land could be put to highest and best use for things the city needs,” Carl Feig, a long-time critic of the airport, said, adding that Kalispell needs a community center or downtown movie theater much more than a bigger airport.
But at least one supporter of the airport reconfiguration, Scott Richardson, a pilot who heads the city’s Airport Advisory Council, spoke up at the meeting to dispute any assertions that decisions about the airport were being made out of the public eye, and argue in favor of a project that would ultimately make the airport and the people living around it safer.
“You’re not getting the correct information,” Richardson said. “I’m very concerned about the safety of the airport, that we keep it a facility that handles traffic in a safe way.”
Lengthening the airport runway to accommodate larger aircraft is not key to the improvements needed at the airport, Richardson added.
Airport Director Fred Leistiko, who was not at the meeting, has been working for years on a plan to reorient the airport’s runway five degrees, widen it and move it a thousand feet south, possibly lengthen it, upgrade the lighting, improve the navigation system and other changes he says will add significant value to a city asset that hasn’t had new equipment since the 1960s.
As property values around the airport have risen, the improvement has grown to a nearly $15-million project, for which the Federal Aviation Administration is willing to pick up 95 percent of the costs.
“It is in desperate need of upgrades,” Leistiko said. “The airport needs fixing, it needs some work and here’s our opportunity.”
But at the Quiet Skies meeting, residents questioned whether taking the federal dollars would result in the city government losing control over the airport. At issue is a list of 39 assurances issued by the FAA that Kalispell must abide by in order to receive the funds. The 14-page list includes such requirements as making sure Davis-Bacon wages are paid on the expansion construction, allowing government aircraft to use the airport at little or no cost and removing hazards around the airspace of the airport – which includes moving the KGEZ radio towers.
At the meeting, Eckels introduced his own list of citizen assurances – which included provisions like ensuring the airport expansion does not increase its noise or decrease Kalispell’s “charm factor” – that he said were designed to conflict with airport improvement plans.
“They’re probably irreconcilable but to me they seem reasonable,” Eckels said.
But Leistiko said the FAA assurances, which are standard for any federal grant recipient, are simply a way for the federal government to ensure that its investment is going to be maintained to a certain standard.
“They’re just asking the federal government who you’re taking money from, that you’re not going to do certain things,” Leistiko said. “They’re not that big of a deal.”
Although the prospect of taking federal money for the airport improvement didn’t seem to sit well with many at the meeting either.
“I’m sick of people saying, ‘It’s federal money, it’s stimulus money.’ It’s our money,” Storli said. “In this valley we have way more problems than adding a problem we don’t have.”
Several city council members and candidates for the council attended the meeting, though they did not speak up, including Mayor Pam Kennedy and council members Bob Hafferman, Tim Kluesner, Kari Gabriel and candidate Marc Rold.
After the meeting, Eckels said he hoped the meeting would help organize the airport opposition, leading to more public involvement, including anything from letter writing to local media to possibly demonstrating outside of city council meetings. A good turnout at the Nov. 10 Planning Board public hearing to expand the South Kalispell Airport Redevelopment Plan Boundary would be crucial, he added.
Leistiko said an update to the Environmental Assessment is necessary before any airport improvement plans move forward and that will include a public hearing. He said his door is always open for those wishing to discuss the airport improvement plans.
“I’ll talk to anybody, I’ll show them the plans,” Leistiko said, “if they’ll listen.”
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