Since it officially opened on July 3, 1929, the municipal airport in Kalispell has been a perennial source of conflict and anxiety. It has divided residents and tormented city officials. Now it has landed on the election ballot.
Residents within the city limits can vote on the future direction and status of the airport through absentee ballots that were mailed out this week or on Nov. 5 at the polling station at Flathead County Fairgrounds.
Voters are tasked with either reaffirming the city council’s previous decision to upgrade the airport to FAA-recommended safety standards or to repeal the council’s action.
If residents successfully repeal the council’s action from a year ago, then it would be back to the drawing board for future use and development at the site. The city would have to rework its planning policy for the facility without the option being recommended by the engineering firm, Stelling Engineers, which presented the latest master plan update. The city has lease obligations into the future that would require the airport remain open, but any further improvements at the site would not be eligible for federal funding, a point that some, including future Kalispell mayor Mark Johnson, have seized on as motivation for upgrading.
If voters reaffirm the council’s decision and vote against repealing the resolution, then the city can move forward with the planned upgrades that are outlined in the latest master plan.
Proponents of the city airport, which include the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and former director of the Montana Department of Transportation, Jim Lynch, describe it as an important economic driver and resource that needs long-overdue safety upgrades.
“This is an asset. This isn’t a piece of infrastructure to provide a service to a few people. This is an economic asset for your community to generate economic activity here,” Lynch told the crowd at a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “That’s why you make the investment.”
Opponents of the facility say it is a nuisance, presents a danger to area neighborhoods and poses a significant unbalanced burden on taxpayers, which further developments would only increase.
“Money has been spent on this airport and the airport has not held its own fiscally. It’s always been in the red,” said Chad Graham, a candidate for Kalispell City Council in Ward 2 who spearheaded the effort to include the airport referendum on the ballot.
The changes proposed for the city airport would include realigning the runway to the south and west of the property and lengthening the runway by 600 feet, to 4,200 feet, which is the minimum distance recommended by the FAA for facilities welcoming small aircraft.
Other proposed upgrades include: removing two nearby radio towers; creating a new 35-feet by 4,200-feet full-length parallel taxiway on the west side of the runway; expanding the aircraft ramp for 17 new aircraft tie-downs; developing new facilities for fixed-based operators, or commercial businesses allowed to exist on site, including a heated hangar and shop and office space; and creating a new public-use heliport on the west side of the airport.
In order to move forward with the developments, the city would need to acquire roughly 114 acres of adjacent land to add onto the current site’s coverage of 135 acres.
Stelling Engineers presented these details after completing a master plan update of the airport in 2011 following a 15-month study of the site. The firm recommended the list of improvements that would meet safety standards in line with the Federal Aviation Administration. The total estimated cost of the proposed upgrades came in at $16.1 million, 90 percent of which could be funded by a federal program that gathers fuel taxes from the aviation industry and dispenses grants to public-use airports across the nation for safety changes. The remaining funds needed for Kalispell’s upgrades could be eligible for federal reimbursements, as well as $3 million in past expenses at the facility.
The reimbursements have drawn sharp skepticism from those who say Kalispell could get stuck footing the bill because the federal government cannot guarantee the funds.
“In fact there are no formal commitments from the government to fund the expansion,” said James Loran, a member of a local group opposing upgrades at the airport. “If there were, the city would have something in writing – a Memorandum of Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding, grant award notification, or a letter stating that the city will receive funding. There is no such commitment.
“The claim that the city will be reimbursed for $3 million in past expenditures at the airport, mostly dating back to 2005-2006, is preposterous. In fact only after the city finds another $5 million, probably by borrowing, to purchase additional land and remove the radio towers, would it be eligible to apply for funding. However funding is not automatic nor assured.”
Gary Gates from the FAA stopped short of making any guarantees over reimbursements when he answered questions from the city council last year. But he did say it was the FAA’s full intention to fulfill reimbursements, and added, “we have a pretty good history” of doing so.
The reimbursements are contingent on a couple of key stipulations, primarily that two nearby radio towers would be removed as safety hazards and that the city successfully acquire 17 separate pieces of adjacent land to allow for further site improvements.
“There’s a lot of work ahead but the plan as its currently stands would meet our standards,” Gates said.
The master plan study highlighted a few immediate needs that could be completed within six to 10 years. 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. The current aviation forecast does not show a full need to upgrade to B-II standards, but updating the airport would make the current facility safer, according to Jeff Walla from Stelling Engineers.
Opponents have also said the airport has failed to be self sufficient, which it is supposed to do as one of the city’s enterprise fund.
“The history of the airport shows that it has not been able to cover its own operating expenses, let alone provide any reserve for long-term maintenance and repairs,” Loran, with the opposition group, said.
The city has a cash fund from previous land sales that covers cost overruns at the airport. Last year, according to the city budget, the airport had total revenue of $79,220 and expenditures of $80,172.
But Loran says the city has not shown the debt that has accrued to acquire airport assets, which would change the financial picture significantly.
The city is exploring ways to improve financial efficiency at the airport and has a preliminary draft for privatizing management at the site.
Criticism of the municipal airport has also centered on safety and nuisance issues. Opponents of the facility have expressed a desire to better use the centrally located property for a possible events center, among other uses. Others have said airplanes using the facility are a significant safety risk, an argument that intensified last year when a plane crashed into a nearby house. No one was seriously injured.
Based on a counting method, the total estimated aircraft operations for the one-year study period was 13,270. A previous estimate of roughly 41,000 was “erroneously high,” according to Stelling.
There are currently 82 aircraft based at the site, seven of which are based at more than one airport over the course of the year, according to the report. Sixty-nine of the aircraft owners reside in Montana, including 35 from Kalispell.
Last year, councilors balked at making a decision about upgrading the airport and approved a motion to let residents vote on whether to upgrade. But six weeks later, the council rescinded the motion by a narrow 5-4 vote. Then two weeks later, in July 2012, the council voted 5-4 in support of Stelling’s recommendation. Councilors Kari Gabriel, Jim Atkinson, Randy Kenyon, Jeff Zauner and Wayne Saverud voted in support of the resolution while Mayor Tammi Fisher and councilors Tim Kluesner, Phil Guiffrida III and Bob Hafferman were opposed.
In the months following the council’s decision, more than 1,800 signatures were gathered, successfully meeting the requirement for a referendum and putting the final say in the hands of voters.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.