At Kalispell Airport Meeting, Concerns Abound

By Beacon Staff

In an effort to improve public dialogue between citizens and city officials over any proposed improvement or expansion at the Kalispell City Airport, a meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn Monday evening drew more than 100 people.

“Civic discourse is a very important part of any public process,” City Manager Jane Howington said at the start of what she dubbed a “scoping session,” the goal of which was “to bring back some of that dialogue and find out where we need to inform people, and get information out, and so on.”

The meeting’s atmosphere was mostly civil, and broadly split between those supporting what would be a federally funded, $14-million project to improve the city airport, and those residents with concerns over whether the improvements and potential expansion of the runway could lead to an increase in noise, air traffic and safety hazards for downtown Kalispell.

Critics of the airport improvements have taken on a higher profile of late with the formation of a group calling itself the “Quiet Skies Committee,” which has been vocal at recent public meetings. To explain why the airport improvements are necessary, supporters of the airport changes recently started a Web site, kalispellcityairport.com.

The meeting’s format was aimed at dispensing with adversarial attitudes. Following a timeline of the airport’s history and recent decisions on the improvement project, Lex Blood, a former professor at Flathead Valley Community College, moderated the meeting, attempting to refine different speaker’s questions or concerns into concise points, that a city staff member wrote down and hung on the wall. By the end of the two hours, the list of concerns ran from one side of the large room to the other.

The current city council, along with incoming Mayor Tammi Fisher and incoming councilman Jeff Zauner, were also present to listen to the public, though they did not speak. Attempts to answer questions and address concerns, Howington said, would be offered at a meeting in January.

“Tonight is not going to solve any of the particular questions and concerns in the process,” Blood said. “It is a step in the process.”

Questions ranged from requests for basic explanations as to how the airport is currently funded, to what control over the airport Kalispell might cede by accepting money from the Federal Aviation Administration, to what alternatives young aviators learning to fly might have if the city airport were shut down.

Many questions concerned property values, and whether the airport improvements would help or harm the values of surrounding land, as well as whether the city could condemn any property adjacent to the airport that is necessary to the improvements.

“The city is making plans to develop property that they do not own,” Charles Lapp said.

Several citizens asked why any final decisions over the airport should be made by the city council.

“Why can’t we do it from a vote and let the people decide?” Carl Feig asked.

One long-time aviator who said he has invested thousands of dollars in his hangar at the airport asked what the city would do to replace the money being generated in the community by the airport if it were closed. Others asked how the city could determine what may or may not be acceptable noise levels generated by the airport.

As has been the case for years, many residents also questioned why any improvements or expansion to the city airport are necessary with the capacity of Glacier Park International Airport, just down the road, to accommodate aircraft.

Scott Richardson, a pilot who heads the city’s Airport Advisory Council, expressed frustration with the “facts being circulated that are half-fact, half-truth.”

“How is the city going to address this lack of information?” Richardson said. “If there are those who ignore those facts and continue to incite emotion, how is the city going to make a decision?”

The meeting’s one real contentious moment came when Steve Eckels, a west side resident who helped start the Quiet Skies Committee, questioned why advocates of the airport weren’t stating their addresses, implying that those who support an expanded airport won’t have to live next to it. Eckels was heckled and ordered by some audience members to sit down.

That one tense exchange, however, underscored what was an otherwise calm meeting aimed at defusing anxieties over the airport. But while there were many questions, the answers will come next year – and how satisfactory citizens find those answers, and where they come from, will determine the next step in the Kalispell City Airport’s progress.