Minden-Tahoe Airport at a crossroads

If you've never driven out to Minden-Tahoe Airport, I suggest you do so. You'll find a sleepy, semi-rural, but surprisingly large, airfield with not much happening. Kind of the way we like it here in Carson Valley. Have a meal at the Taildragger Cafe while you're there.

You may see a glider tow in progress or some student going out for a lesson in a Cessna. If you're lucky, you might see some pilot fire up his Bonanza and take off or one of our occasional gambling junket jets arrive or even some skydiving. Such is the eclectic character of our county airport, which had its origins in 1942 as an Army airfield.

You'll also get to see the last days of the airport as it has been for years because it is about to change dramatically. The airport may not affect you much now, but that could change too. Let's take a look.

The airport is preparing a new master plan, which is required to qualify for FAA funding of airport improvements. The county commission recently directed that more meetings be held to gain additional public input. I went to the last of those on Jan. 31. What I learned was that the plans were largely unaffected by the additional input and that the public has only grown more skeptical about what's going on.

And that the plan preferred by airport management will now move forward toward approval without further consideration of alternatives.

It seems clear to me that, absent intervention by the county commission, the configuration of the airport will be radically altered to make it something entirely different than it has been.

And, oddly, entirely different than the vision for the airport adopted by that same commission last May, which said that Minden-Tahoe should " ... focus on being a general aviation community oriented airport."

The plan essentially creates two airports, a new one to the east and the old one to the west. The east airport would be a new light aircraft/soaring facility. That has many appealing qualities but begs the question of what will happen at the old existing west airport. We have extensive facilities there that could easily accommodate jets.

And with light aircraft and gliders out of the way ... well, you get the picture.

To date, the county has identified no way of effectively controlling what will happen at the west airport. The county can't control flight operations. County management says we have little control of private development on land leased from the airport. The weight capacity of the airport is unclear but certainly sufficient for business jets. And we have no assurance that even a revised version of the weight limit previously adopted by voters would be effective. It has never been enforced.

Most importantly, the FAA says if we build and maintain facilities that will physically accommodate certain aircraft, we must let them operate here. So if we move our light aircraft and soaring operations to the east, essentially clearing the decks on our 7,500-foot main runway and related taxiways and ramps, it will be very difficult to prevent larger, faster, noisier aircraft from operating here if they have reason to do so.

And this could be a good location for the fractional (time-shared) business jet operations that are increasingly popular with the nation's elites. This segment of aviation is growing rapidly. Forecast International says 15,000 more jets in the next eight years, with few existing jets retired.

County management says not to worry, that is unlikely to happen here.

But PiƱon Aero LLC, which leases 80 plus acres from the airport, has now submitted plans that make clear what will or could happen over time at the west airport. They include over 100 large hangers. Absent information to the contrary they scream "jet port."

Interestingly, the operational forecasts prepared by the airport seem to fall conveniently below the threshold that would require Federal environmental review for FAA funded projects. So we can't expect much analysis on that front. This despite the fact that those projections don't seem to square with the extensive development proposed. (They absurdly posit only two additional jets based here over the next 20 years.)

If we move forward without more careful consideration of what we're doing we could lose control of our airport and risk it eventually becoming something no one wants here, with substantial numbers of straight-in/straight-out jet operations right down the middle of our generally peaceful Valley. This has happened to other communities and there is no reason why it couldn't happen here.

The enormous potential to adversely affect the quality of life here could very well negate any positive economic benefits of the airport.

We don't want people saying, 20 years from now, "Yeah, nice place, but that airport. No thanks."

There is an alternative: a more modest plan that would enhance the airport in something approximating its current configuration. That would result in a perfectly workable airport for the purposes stated in the County Commission's vision but one less attractive to the jet operations we don't want here.

Maybe in the end County management will be proven correct that there is nothing to be done about this. But we need to slow down, take a more careful look, consider the concerns of residents and reconsider where we're headed. Because if we go much further the "facts on the ground" that airport management is pursuing right now will foreclose our options and there will be no going back.

You can review the plans at the airport Web site, www.mindentahoeairport.com. And you can get the counterpoint at www.ourairport.org, the Web site of the Carson Valley Vanguard Coalition, a group of residents and aviators seeking an airport consistent with the County Commission's adopted vision.

Then please contact the County Commission, let them know your concerns and ask them to retake control of this process from airport management and assure that it works in the interests of the entire community: Douglas County Commission, P.O. Box 218, Minden 89423.


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