Kalispell to Explore Airport Improvements; Rules Out Closure

By Beacon Staff

The Kalispell airport isn’t going anywhere – at least not if Monday night’s city council meeting is any indication. For months now city officials have been holding public meetings to gauge public reaction and address concerns regarding planned improvements and the potential expansion of the city airport.

But at Monday’s work session, where no votes are allowed, city council members used that information to spend three hours discussing the policy direction of the airport issue – a debate that involved taking several options off the table completely and providing the first indications in some time as to what the future holds for the airport.

The unwillingness of several landowners adjacent to the airport to sell their property could end up stymieing any plans to alter the airport. But by the end of the meeting, council members asked City Manager Jane Howington to explore the feasibility of three broad options: Leaving the airport as it is and exploring what federal reimbursement might be available for minor safety improvements; reorienting the runway but leaving it the same size, along with other updates; and looking into purchasing land directly south of the airport to move the runway in that direction with “minimal extension.”

Proposals to close the airport and sell off the land, or relocate the Kalispell airport elsewhere in Flathead County or to Glacier Park International Airport, were mostly rejected by council members. This was due mainly to the cost of buying out ongoing leases at the city airport, which estimates put at a minimum of $2.2 million, though many council members thought the cost would end up being much higher. That’s before Kalispell looks into purchasing land and building another airport someplace else.

Mayor Tammi Fisher said honoring the leases is necessary to preserving the city’s integrity.

“If the city makes a promise I think it should follow through,” Fisher said. “As it stands we have a lot of long term contracts too, so closing the airport in my mind, doesn’t seem like a viable option.”

The prospect of harming businesses at the airport was also unpopular.

“Even if it’s only 15 jobs that rely on the airport, I cannot condemn those jobs, that’s just not a moral thing to do,” Councilman Tim Kluesner said. “And by closing the airport you condemn those jobs; you condemn livelihoods.”

The council seemed broadly averse to extending the airport runway, saying most public input they received indicated the majority of citizens would like to see the airport remain at its current size.

“Looking at 3,600 or 3,700 (feet of runway length) makes sense and doesn’t foreclose extending it in the future,” Fisher said. “I too would be in favor of maintaining the length of the runway as it is now.”

But other council members noted that not updating the airport could leave Kalispell on the hook for improvements it paid for in expectation of Federal Aviation Administration reimbursement at a later date. Councilman Wayne Saverud observed the city was still obligated to make the airport as safe as possible, likening it to maintenance of the Woodland Park public pool.

“If we opt for the ‘do nothing’ option we still need to look at any potential safety improvement that could possibly be made,” Saverud said. “It’s our responsibility to do as much as we possibly can in the way of safety measures.”

Fisher said she met with the Weiss family, as well as the Schlegels, who all own property around the southwest corner of the runway that would need to be acquired as part of the “runway protection zone” (RPZ) to expand and reorient the runway. The Weiss family does not want to sell, she said, but the Schlegels and Monk properties may consider it. But all of the council ruled out the idea of condemning anyone’s private property.

As the meeting drew to a close, the council directed Howington to draw up a contract allowing Jeff Walla of Stelling Engineers to explore the feasibility of alternate arrangements, like allowing adjacent landowners to establish easements that might not conflict with the RPZ, but would allow for private ownership of the land and for the city to still receive FAA funding for airport improvements. Other options would include inquiring about possible land purchases south of the airport, like property owned by S&S Canopies & Camper Manufacturing.

The city also plans to invite a representative of the FAA to come address the council and answer questions. Howington anticipates that visit occurring mid-March.