Residents Pack City Hall for Kalispell Airport Hearing

By Beacon Staff

The scene inside Kalispell City Hall on Monday night more closely resembled a crowded airport terminal than a weekly meeting. With the fate of the municipal airport in limbo, people crammed into the council chambers and waited for perhaps their final chance to publicly speak up. The room quickly filled beyond its 93-person capacity almost 20 minutes before the meeting started. Some residents were wearing small heart stickers depicting a plane, a sign of support for the local airfield. Others lined up near the podium clamoring to express disapproval of the latest airport master plan recommendations.

As the meeting neared, Mayor Tammi Fisher announced the room was too overcrowded. Police Chief Roger Nasset began herding people into the lobby.

“Why are you trying to silence public comment?” one man yelled.

Fisher responded calmly, assuring no one would be silenced. “Everyone will have a chance to be heard,” she said.

The 83-year-old city airport is a perennial source of controversy and emotion in Kalispell. That all culminated this week when a wide range of public comment resonated inside City Hall for over three hours. People lined up behind the podium waiting their turn while about 60 gathered in the lobby listening intently to computer monitors that were set up displaying the council meeting. All told, 71 people voiced an opinion to the mayor and eight councilors, who are about to decide once again, and perhaps once and for all, whether to follow recommended upgrades at the current airport. Forty-two residents expressed their support for upgrading the airport in one form or another; 29 were against.

The opinions ranged from emotional to emphatic. The airport’s a nuisance, some said. But so are lawnmowers, others rebuffed. Further upgrades and expansions are a waste of taxpayers’ money, some said. But without a healthy airport in town, businesses can’t grow in and around it, others countered.

A couple of neighbors said they shudder in fear whenever an airplane flies overhead, using the recent non-fatal crash as an example. Others reminded the council that car wrecks are significantly more likely than aircraft accidents, and no residents have died in a place crash in town in over 30 years.

Some people described the airport as a “landmark” or shared stories of learning to fly for the first time thanks to the small airstrip near the heart of town. Others called the site a “vanity project for a very small minority.”

There were accusations that the latest study is being liberal with its assumptions, namely the forecasted traffic and fiscal analysis for the airport’s future.

Later, after the public hearing had ended and the council chambers had all but emptied, councilor Tim Kluesner asked about “assumptions” made in the Stelling Engineers master plan.

City Attorney Charles Harball said there was never a separate fiscal analysis made relating to future projections. Stelling Engineers included a breakdown of forecasted traffic increases and cost estimates for possible development, budgets and needs, the validity of which were called into question during public comment.

“Your analysis is going to be as good as anybody’s,” Harball said in response to Kluesner’s inquiry.

In other words, the next step is now up to Fisher and the eight councilors. They are expected to decide May 21.

That decision weighs heavy, Fisher told the Beacon Tuesday.

“All of us better have done an exhaustive amount of research before we make this decision because it will set a precedent from here forward on the fate of that airport,” she said.

Fisher said she was “pleasantly surprised” and learned more than she expected from Monday’s meeting. She said she takes the public comment into consideration, along with the past and present airport studies she has read “from cover to cover,” researching essentially everything there is surrounding the airport.

“This is a decision that all of us were elected to make,” she said. “I’m OK with the fact that we make hard decisions. This will be a difficult decision across the board. I have no doubt that somebody will be disappointed and maybe a lot of people will be disappointed. But that’s comparatory and part of the job.”

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