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Home / Articles / News / News /  Turbulence
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Thursday, March 17,2011

Turbulence

Critics question impact of proposed Longmont airport expansion

By Jefferson Dodge
The ongoing battle about whether to extend the runway at the Vance Brand Municipal Airport in Longmont is poised to take off again.

A local group of activists, primarily composed of those who live near the airport, has raised concerns in the past about possible effects of an expanded runway, including noise, environmental impacts, decreased home values, even effects on schoolchildren in the area.

Proponents of the longer runway have cited the positive economic impacts the expansion could have, such as companies relocating to Longmont and bringing new jobs, or even the revenue boost from existing local companies and pilots beginning to make more use of an improved airport. They say improvements are needed to bring the local airport up to modern standards.

But opponents argue that an anticipated airport consultant’s report will be biased in favor of extending the runway, because the study has been funded primarily by a pro-aviation federal agency, is being conducted by pro-aviation employees, and is being guided by local groups loaded with pro-development agendas — including the city council.

The standoff could become another pro-growth vs. anti-growth issue in the local November election, given that three city council seats and the mayor job are up for grabs.

THE STANDOFF

The idea is to extend the runway from 4,800 feet to 6,200 feet, and the two sides have been at it for a while. There are dueling letters to the editor, even competing websites. The pro-expansion group, PLANE (Promoting Longmont Airport’s Needed Expansion), has http://theplanetruth.org. The opponents, CARE (Citizens Against Runway Expansion), maintain http://longmontairportcare.com. The former features a point-by-point rubuttal of their opponents’ long list of arguments. The pro-expansion camp likes to call the anti-expansion group “SCARE.”

Howard Morgan, chair of the Longmont Airport Advisory Board (AAB), says the current runway is not long enough for many planes to refuel fully and then take off again. Weight requirements, combined with the short runway, often require jets to take off with less than a full tank, meaning they have to stop and land at other airports prior to their final destination. Morgan says this is a deterrent to using Longmont’s airport.

In addition, he says, the airport, and hence the city, are losing revenue they could be making on selling fuel. (The city gets about 10 cents in taxes from every gallon of fuel sold.)

“We’re just serving these planes for nothing if they’re not buying fuel,” he says, adding that the airport’s deficiencies deter corporate officials from meeting in Longmont. “They’re not flying around looking for a hamburger; they’re looking to do business.”

Morgan says additional fuel revenue could lead to improvements such as a business conference room and a crew rest station. He notes that local major employers Amgen and Seagate don’t use the airport because of its deficiencies. Morgan also says the outdated facility might deter NASA from placing a planned aerospace research park in Longmont, a claim that opponents deny, citing the fact that the better-equipped Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield and the Fort Collins/Loveland Municipal airports are each only about 30 miles away.

Morgan says the allegations that “kids are going to be retarded and wildlife are going to leave” if the runway is extended are outrageous, as is the idea that lengthening the runway is going to allow for large commercial flights, given weight limits.

Airport manager Tim Barth adds, “Everybody thinks that if the runway is extended we are going to have large jets coming in, and we’re not. We are physically limited, by the weight of the runway, on what type of aircraft we can accommodate here, to 30,000 pounds.”

Complicating things is the aerodynamics of flight.

Morgan says the “thinner” air at this altitude makes it more difficult to take off, and requires the additional speed that a longer runway can provide, especially in the higher temperatures of summer.

“This runway, at sea level, would be fairly adequate,” Morgan explains. “But up here, the air is less dense.

“If anything, a longer runway is safer,” he says. “If a plane has a mechanical failure [during takeoff], it needs enough runway remaining to be able to stop.”

STACKED DECK?

Now opponents of the project have started shining a light on what they say are flaws in the process.

David Hignite, who flew as a private pilot for about 10 years and now lives near the airport, questions whether “special interests” such as the city council-appointed Airport Advisory Board, the Longmont Chamber of Commerce and the Longmont Area Economic Council will exert undue influence on the outcome. He also wonders whether the consultant charged with preparing a master plan for the airport will be willing to bite the hand that feeds it. Since $150,000 of the $204,000 price tag for the master plan being drafted by consultant Jviation is being funded by the pro-aviation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Hignite says, the consultant will naturally have a bias in favor of recommending an extension of the runway. (He also points out that members of the Jviation team used to work for the FAA and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is contributing funding to the project as well. Jviation did not respond to a request for comment.)

Hignite and other CARE members also claim that the FAA’s $150,000 contribution to the master plan is  federal stimulus money, and as such is wasting general tax dollars and contributing to the national deficit unnecessarily.

“Why are we going to triplicate services, with federal dollars, that are already available in Loveland and Broomfield?” he asks.

But the other side points out that the FAA requires new master plans to be developed every five to seven years, and vehemently denies that the federal grant contains a dime of stimulus money. Airport expansion proponents say the funding came from aviation users, with revenues from fuel, passenger and air freight taxes and fees.

Hignite points to FAA budget documents showing that the federal appropriation for such grants received an infusion of $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2009, bringing it up to $4.9 billion. But local FAA airport planner Linda Bruce says that particular $150,000 grant included no stimulus funds, and she provided documents showing that the grant does not appear on a list of stimulus-funded projects. In addition, the master plan does not fit the description of stimulus-eligible projects, since it is not shovel-ready construction and the city is providing matching funds (the Colorado Department of Transportation chipped in $37,631, and the city is paying the balance).

One lingering question, CARE member Diane Wood asks, is where the money will come from to do the runway extension or other improvements. In its proposal, Jviation cites its accomplishments in securing $34 million in stimulus funding for other airport projects, including three in Colorado. But proponents of the expansion insist that only user-generated revenue, not stimulus money, will be used to carry out improvements.

“This is not taxpayer money that is being misappropriated in any way, shape or form,” says city council member Katie Witt. “I understand how some people might like it to be that, but it’s not.”

NOT NIMBYS

Some chalk up the opposition to the runway expansion as a “not in my backyard” reaction from nearby homeowners.

But Hignite insists his group is not anti-growth and was “just as excited as anybody” that NASA was looking at Longmont as a possible location for a research park.

“We’re very pro-growth, but let’s do it in a manner that is positive for the community,” he says. “We’re not interested in seeing the airport closing. We’re just concerned about seeing it commercialized. … Southwest isn’t going to fly 737s in there, we understand that. But they talk about charter planes flying in, which are commercial.”

Hignite points to several ways in which city officials have not complied with FAA guidelines for the project, and he questions why they aren’t doing a more thorough examination of the expansion’s environmental and socioeconomic impacts. (Airport manager Barth says this is just a master plan, and that full-fledged studies of environmental and other impacts are required to be done before any improvements can be made.)

City council is abdicating its responsibilities, Hignite says, because members are turning the study of the project over to a pro-aviation consultant funded by a pro-aviation federal agency, without doing a cost-benefits analysis.

He adds that while Longmont Mayor Bryan Baum has said eight to 10 companies have decided to not relocate to Longmont because the airport is inadequate, Baum and others have declined to disclose the names of those groups.

Hignite says extending the runway now would be switching directions in midstream, given city officials’ rebuttal of a recommendation to expand it seven years ago, and their decision in the 1980s to authorize the construction of housing developments and schools in the area (he says the area around the airport has seen the addition of six schools with about 3,600 kids and approximately 4,000 homes.)

“This battle was fought 20 years ago, and the decision was made that an expanded airport wasn’t that important to Longmont’s growth,” he says.

But now, according to Hignite, city officials like Baum have been talking about the runway extension like it’s a done deal. He quotes an e-mail sent by council member Witt that says, “I am supporting the extended runway because we have been asked to do so by the FAA.”

“It’s a very questionable process,” Hignite says. “It’s a biased process. The citizens aren’t being heard.”

AT WITT’S END

Witt, who serves as the city council liaison to the Airport Advisory Board and whose Ward II includes the airport and surrounding neighborhoods, acknowledged in an interview that she and other city officials initially spoke out of turn in favor of the runway extension, before they knew about guidelines discouraging such comments. She says that in the e-mail quoted by Hignite, she was referring to the FAA’s support for expanding the airport seven years ago, the last time city council voted the proposal down.

“This was, unfortunately, handled in not the optimal fashion, just by virtue of not knowing how we do business as a city council,” she says. “I know that folks feel like the fix was in and that this is all window dressing. I can tell you from a city councilperson’s perspective that none of us on council were approached by the FAA.”

As for Hignite’s claim about the consultant’s inherent bias in the process, Witt says, “I don’t know that there are any consultants out there that don’t have the same qualifications, interest and resume as Jviation. Obviously they are in this business because they see the value in it. I do not believe that there would be a consultant out there that would meet David Hignite’s requirements to be predisposed to not support taking care of our infrastructure.”

Witt adds that Jviation doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome.

“They will not be doing the work to actually do the runway, so it doesn’t benefit them one way or another,” she says. “They still get paid the same amount of money whether they recommend to extend the runway or not.”

Witt says she is withholding final judgment on the runway question until she sees the consultant’s final analysis.

“I have not heard anything yet that would make me not vote for it, but I don’t have the study yet,” she says, adding that she’ll base her decision on what is best for the city.

“Even if it means I don’t get re-elected, I will have a clear conscience,” she says.

While Witt agrees that it is likely to become an election issue, she thinks most Longmont residents don’t seem too concerned about it.

“I would say probably 80 percent of Longmont doesn’t care,” Witt says. “Of the last 20 percent, two-thirds support extending the runway and one-third is very, very against it. That’s just based on my conversations, it’s not by any means scientific.”

She does understand the concerns of area residents about the effect an expansion might have on what is likely their largest investment — their home value — during an economic downturn.

“When you have potentially something coming in that may decrease your home value, that obviously is going to upset people,” Witt says.

MILE-HI NOISE

Officials say airport noise is unrelated to the length of the runway. And AAB Chair Morgan says newer business jets are quieter than old planes, especially given tests that have shown that “the noise on the traffic on the road is quite a bit higher than the airplane’s.”

The vast majority of noise complaints are leveled at the planes used by Mile-Hi Skydiving.

“When they’re running both planes during the high season, we don’t have peace from early in the morning to when the sun sets at night,” says Teresa Foster, who lives nearby. “I’m worn out and ready to move. I always pray for bad weather so they can’t jump.”

But officials say that company’s traffic will remain unchanged, regardless of the expansion decision.

“Extending the runway will not benefit them one way or another, because they only need half of the runway anyway,” Witt says.

“They do what they can to minimize their impact,” airport manager Barth says of Mile-Hi. “The thing that hurts them most is they do not have a choice where they fly. They are dictated by the FAA Air Traffic Division on where they fly and how they fly in there.”

Barth says the Jviation study has just entered the first of its three phases, and the consultant is currently doing an inventory of the airport’s resources. At the end of each of the three phases, Jviation will issue a “working paper” and host a public meeting. CARE members, who say the one city advisory group on which they had representation was eliminated, express dismay that Jviation plans to have “open house style” gatherings with learning stations instead of traditional hearings with oral public comment in an audience setting.

The latter, Jviation says in its proposal, “are not a good forum in which to have a beneficial discussion of issues.” Instead, it says, each of its learning stations will be manned by a staff member or consultant who “can provide information and receive input in an informal setting.”

In the end, Barth says, Jviation will simply lay out the alternatives and won’t make a recommendation to city council. Then it will draft the master plan according to the option the council chooses. And this may take a while.

“There’s obviously a lot of attention drawn to this from the public,” Barth says, noting that it could be early 2012 before all is said and done. “And we want to be thorough, very thorough, in our public presentation and gathering input and comment from the public, because the airport belongs to the entire city of Longmont. If that slows the timeframe down, so be it.”

Barth stresses that the master plan process is not just about the debated expansion, it’s about other possible airport facility improvements, from the bathrooms to the parking lots to the utilities.

“The most important thing is this is not just about a runway extension,” he says. “It’s about a plan for an infrastructure facility that needs to serve the needs of the city over the next 10 to 15 years. I know this thing has snowballed into a runway extension, but there’s so much more to it than that.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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