Land Acquisition Presents Main Hurdle for Kalispell Airport Changes

By Beacon Staff

After dealing with other issues for the last several weeks, the Kalispell City Council once again took up the question of whether and how the city airport should be improved at a work session Monday evening. On hand to answer questions from council members was Gary Gates, a project manager based out of the Federal Aviation Administration’s district office in Helena.

At issue is the long-running plan to reorient and possibly expand the city airport, along with a host of other updates and improvements, 95 percent of which is eligible for federal reimbursement. But a vocal group composed mainly of west side residents opposes any expansion of the airport out of concern over safety and increased noise from bigger planes landing and departing.

In recent discussions, council members have been leaning toward a compromise where the runway is realigned and improved, but left the same length, to avoid attracting larger aircraft. Gates told council members in order to receive FAA funding for its current plan, the city would have to acquire land for a runway protection zone (RPZ) large enough to accommodate at least a 4,280-foot runway, even if Kalispell decided it would not expand the runway beyond its current 3,700-foot length.

Gates also made clear Kalispell would not be eligible for the federal funds until it acquired the parcels of land making runway realignment possible. So even if, as Councilman Tim Kluesner asked, the city made arrangements to move the broadcast towers for the now defunct KGEZ station that currently conflict with runway airspace, no federal funds would be available unless the runway was going to be realigned in accordance with FAA standards.

“So the city won’t get money back for taking down the towers if we leave airport alone?” Kluesner asked.

“That is correct,” Gates said.

“So, we’re into this,” Kluesner said.

If the city accepts FAA funds to carry about airport improvements, according to Gates, Kalispell would also be prevented from imposing restrictions on noise levels or hours of operation the way it would if it retained full authority over the airport.

As the discussion progressed, Gates returned to land acquisition of the property surrounding the airport as the key obstacle facing the city as it looks to reorient the runway 5 degrees and possibly move it south. Some adjacent property owners, like the Wise family, have indicated at previous meetings they do not intend to sell their land.

Whether those properties could be purchased or protected through an easement that overlaps with the runway protection zone will only be revealed through further negotiations between the city and landowners.

It also appears some of the tensions surrounding the airport have cooled over the last month as the issue has taken a back seat to medical marijuana and other questions facing the council.

Long-time airport critic Fred Hamill maintained his opposition, saying the concerns of a large number of west side residents appear secondary to the wishes of a smaller number of pilots.

“This is the only airport where the airplanes land and take off directly over a populated area,” Hamill said. “We don’t mean nothing, right? Only these pilots mean something.”

But Scott Davis, a leader of the Quiet Skies Committee which has long opposed airport expansion, and who has said previously in meetings that the airport should not continue at its current site at all, appears to have softened his stance. Davis said he agreed with pilots at the city airport who just wish to keep the airport in its current state, rather than jeopardize it with expansion plans.

“They’re saying, dump the expansion, we don’t want to lose our little airport,” Davis told the council. “After tonight, I don’t think it’s going to go very far, but that’s up to you guys.”