Proposal best way to limit airport growth

After nine months of public input, including my own, the board of county commissioners has now approved a ballot measure that will repeal the current voter approved airport weight ordinance and enact a new airport use ordinance.

This ballot measure - called the Airport Use Ordinance - represents the product of a lot of interaction between citizens and local county officials.

It is my prediction that once the voters understand its content, they will pass it at the general election in November. The Sustainable Growth Committee and the Board of the Carson Valley Vanguard Coalition have already endorsed this forthcoming ballot measure for several good reasons, as explained below.

For starters, the proposed ordinance de-emphasizes weight control as a means to achieve a balance between the airport interest and citizens who want to maintain the ambiance and rural character of Carson Valley.

Instead, the concept incorporated into this new ordinance requires the county to support the kind of infrastructure that is consistent with maintaining and supporting small aircraft and sport aviation activities and not the "big stuff."

That doesn't mean that larger tenants at the airport such as Hutt Aviation and Pinon Aero have to confine themselves to small general aviation support as they have the right, as private parties, to operate under their current leases, which have to be honored.

However, the new proposed use ordinance does prohibit the following changes to the airport without further voter approval, that is: 1) no scheduled airlines; 2) no new paved runways except for sailplane operations; 3) no extension or widening of existing runways; 4) no increase in the weight-bearing capacity of the runways; 5) no increase in the weight-bearing capacity of the taxiways and ramps except to the extent necessary to conform to existing runway pavement strength; 6) no application for Federal Aviation Administration funding or use of the county's general fund for any airport projects, including, but not limited to a permanent FAA control tower, instrument landing system or passenger security systems, except for (7) certain items which do not require voter approval such as airport maintenance, noise control, maintaining FAA standards for general aviation within certain limits, preservation and rehabilitation of existing pavement infrastructure as well as infrastructure in support of small aircraft and sport aviation activities.

It is clear that under this arrangement, the voters have substantial control over the future of this airport. Other provisions relate to a voluntary noise control measure (until a noise control study is done); limiting the facilities within the aviation access portion of the airport to aviation use only; and the establishment of an enhanced airport protection zone that requires the county, through zoning and planning action, not to allow incompatible land uses around the airport - with the aim of reducing negative environmental impacts and enhancing safety within the airport protection zone.

The pilot of an overweight aircraft is required to have prior permission to land. If excessive cumulative damage to airport pavement is noted by the airport manager at any time, then the airport manager has the authority to refuse permission for such aircraft to land. A variety of substantial penalties apply for violators of this ordinance. The present district attorney has stated that, if passed by the voters, he will vigorously enforce this ordinance.

This effort to put the matter back to the voters came about at this time because in April 2009 the FAA took the position that the county's initiative-passed airport weight ordinance is not in compliance with federal aviation regulations. Why? Because airport pavement studies in 2002 and 2005 reveal that the main runway can routinely handle aircraft weights up to 75,000 pounds (dual wheel) and occasional use by aircraft weighing up to 105,000 pounds. As a matter of perspective, our heaviest firefighting aircraft, when operating at our airport, weighs in at 105,000 pounds. While these weight limit studies remain in substantial dispute by some (and there is some evidence the FAA might even require a further study), the official FAA conclusion at this time is that our present weight limit ordinance of 30,000 pounds (single wheel) and 50,000 pounds (dual wheel) is unreasonably discriminatory towards other (heavier) aircraft users at our airport. I should add that the FAA has longed viewed airport weight ordinances with suspicion.

As a result, federal grant funding of more than $600,000 has been withheld by the FAA. This grant was to be used for improvements on the east side of the airport. However, repealing our current airport weight ordinance requires voter approval. You should also be aware that for many years both the county district attorney and his predecessors have been aware that the present ordinance was likely non-compliant with federal regulations. Also, if enforced, the potential for private lawsuits against the county would have been a probability. In my opinion, these were the likely reasons the weight ordinance has never been enforced. In effect, over these many years, the current unenforced weight ordinance came to represent only an unenforced expression of the voters that our airport should remain a small, general aviation airport consistent with the rural character of Carson Valley, and nothing more. Despite the current economic rescission, that fact remains true to this day.

The proposed airport use ordinance utilizes an approach which does not use a hard number within the ordinance to limit weight. Instead - and because there still remains some dispute as to what the actual weight limit number is - the pilot is directed to consult the Airport Facilities Directory (which all pilots should have on board) for the limit, whatever it may be. That way any new study done to resolve any remaining dispute as to the weight limit won't require a formal amendment to the ordinance.

A recent guest opinion article entitled "Don't Get Fooled Again on Minden Airport" takes to task this proposed new ordinance as well as the 2008 update of the Airport Master Plan on several grounds, most of which I am not in agreement. My conclusion is that the writer wants to retain the present airport weight ordinance despite the fact that it has never been enforced and places our airport out of compliance with FAA anti-discrimination regulations with a consequent loss of grant funding.

Look for future discussions. Certainly this new ordinance, if passed, will not solve all airport problems; however it represents a big step forward in providing some tools that will help to keep a credible balance between airport operations and the people's desire to maintain the peace, tranquility and rural character of Carson Valley.

• John H. Garvin is a Minden resident and has been active in the county's growth and airport discussions.


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