Future of City Airport Still Up in the Air

By Beacon Staff

Once again Kalispell city councilors are at a contentious crossroads over what to do with the 83-year-old municipal airport as public outcry continues to pour in from opposing sides of a debate that has gone on for decades.

An engineer hired by the city to determine the most suitable future for the airport unveiled the results of a 15-month study that whittled down five possible options, including upgrading the current site, building a new facility near Glacier High School and relocating to Glacier Park International Airport.

Jeff Walla from Stelling Engineers presented an updated draft of the latest Kalispell City Airport Master Plan at a crowded, and at times heated, three-hour work session at Kalispell City Hall on Dec. 12. The report can be found online. Stelling Engineers is accepting public comments until Jan. 15. Send letters to 1372 Airport Road, Kalispell, 59901 or email [email protected].

Walla revealed five “preliminary improvement alternatives” that will be reviewed by both city staff and the Federal Aviation Administration before a recommendation is given to city councilors. The proposed alternatives are: upgrade and develop the existing site according to B-II FAA standards and assisted by federal aid; upgrade the current site in a limited capacity that would be ineligible for federal aid; build a new airport on West Spring Creek Road; relocate all operations to Glacier International; or let the airport exist in its current state without any investment, eventually resulting in its closure.

Based on a scoring method that Walla and his staff created, relocating to Glacier International received the highest ranking, mostly because the facility upgrades would be substantially better at the larger airport northeast of town and there would be no cost.

Upgrading the airport to B-II standards to support larger aircraft would cost $10.1 million, with federal funds covering $9.6 million, Walla estimated. Limited upgrades that would keep the airport at B-I standards against the FAA’s recommendation and not be supported by federal funds would cost $2.7 million. Building a new airport northwest of town would cost $11.2 million, with $9.7 federally funded.

After Walla’s presentation and after city councilors asked a few initial questions about financial implications, 21 residents spoke up during a lengthy public comment period, from airport neighbors upset about noise and safety hazards to pilots who frequent the 79-acre airfield and consider it an important local resource.

At times throughout the night, members of the audience either clapped or clamored after remarks were made. Some passionate speakers were scolded for addressing the surrounding audience or city officials instead of the council.

At the heart of the discussion was the question: Should the airport stay or should it go? Both sides received about equal support, leaving a muddied picture of public opinion emblematic of the quandary that has burdened the city for the last several years.

The airport has been the focus of four different studies in the last 30 years. Similar to a previous two-year master plan that was concluded in 1999, the city’s latest study, which began in September 2010, aimed to determine the feasibility, cost and funding sources for any improvements or expansion of the airport. Currently the airport meets most B-I standards but the FAA has said it would not pay for any improvements that did not include an upgrade to B-II standards.

The study released on Monday highlighted a few immediate needs. The taxiways are too narrow and too close to runways; runway protection zones are inadequate; the runway length passed code but meets requirements for just 75 percent of small aircraft; and airspace obstructions like surrounding businesses and radio towers exist.

Although the current aviation forecast does not show a full need to upgrade to B-II standards, Walla said, updating the airport would make the current facility safer.

Those opposing the airport in its current state focused their attention on the safety hazards and noise nuisance from low flying planes taking off and landing.

“You must seriously consider that we ought to close that present airport and look in a different direction,” Karlene Kohr said. “Right now it’s dangerous for everyone.”

Scott Davis with Quiet Skies, a local organization that has called for the airport to be moved or shut down, said other airstrips exist across the valley and the current airport has less of a positive impact on nearby businesses than some are contending.

“Quiet Skies are not out to cut or shut down this airport because we don’t like airports. We don’t like the noise, the danger” associated with the current city airport, Davis said.

“We want a workable solution,” he added.

Those in favor of keeping the airport intact and upgrading facilities argued that planes flying into Kalispell are safer than automobiles driving through downtown; that a small airport is a preferred alternative over larger ones like Glacier International for smaller aircraft; and that business and jobs are tied to the airport and could be expanded after improvements were made.

“The city provides a lot of different resources — parks, golf courses, baseball fields. I’m glad they’re here for people, even though I don’t really use them,” John Paul Noyes, a local pilot, said. “For some people, the airport, that’s not their thing. It’s still a valuable asset.”

Other residents pointed out the historical significance surrounding the facilities, which were originally developed in 1928 after the city purchased 135 acres of land southwest of town.

Some residents, like Kohr, favor a city-wide vote to settle the matter.

Engineers installed a machine to record touch and go events or takeoffs as a way to better estimate traffic at the airport. The counter reported 6,281 noise events between Sept. 22, 2010 and Sept. 1, 2011, Walla said. Taking into account landing operations, which were not recorded, Walla estimated there were 11,306 total flight operations for the year.

That number was considerably lower than previous estimates that projected roughly 40,000 operations a year. Walla said several factors could have affected airport operations: last year’s rough winter; high fuel prices; a difficult economy; and the fact that previous predictions were simply erroneous.

The FAA is currently reviewing the latest study and will provide feedback and possible approval by the end of the month, Walla said. The city is also reviewing financial implications, including possible tax increment finance funds available and the prospect of lease buyouts estimated at $4.8 million if the current site is abandoned. After that, Walla and staff at Stelling Engineers will formally recommend what they believe is the city’s best option. The earliest completion date of the study is likely March, Walla said.