Airport ordinance debate prepares for takeoff | RecordCourier.com
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Airport ordinance debate prepares for takeoff

Debate over a ballot question that repeals Minden-Tahoe Airport’s controversial weight ordinance is picking up airspeed in preparation for the Nov. 2 ballot question.

The question repeals the airport’s weight limit, which has never been enforced, and replaces it with a reference to the actual carrying capacity of the airport’s runway. It also establishes what proponents say are more stringent rules for expansion of the airport including that the county seek voter approval before making major alterations to the airport.

Opponents say the ordinance has several loopholes and only appears to protect Valley residents from an influx of large jets.

Both sides will make presentations at a town hall forum scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 8 at the CVIC Hall.

Presenting in favor of changing the ordinance will be Steven Swabacker, John Garvin and Mike Bradford. Speaking against the ordinance will be Jack Van Dien and Jim Herd. Terry Burnes won’t be participating because the county is getting time for a PowerPoint presentation that he says promotes the ordinance. A letter detailing his objections is scheduled to be published in The R-C on Friday.

“I can’t wait for the debate,” Swabacker said. “The other side will have a hard argument to make.”

Van Dien said he has no concern that his argument won’t hold up.

Swabacker, who is president of the Carson Valley Vanguard Coalition, said that while he favors approval of the ordinance, he wants to share all the information from both sides of the debate with voters so they can make an informed decision.

The coalition has not always been so supportive of the county’s airport decisions.

“Maintaining the airport in the current condition or better depends on money,” Swabacker said. “The question is whether it comes from the federal government or local taxpayers. So many people don’t want federal money, but how else do you maintain the airport?”

A new group has been formed to promote the ballot question.

Al Browne is president of Residents for a Rural Community Airport formed last week to support the use ordinance.

“The money is there for us,” Browne said of federal dollars that could be used to maintain the airport. “The current ordinance is not legally enforceable. This one has teeth and is far more restrictive. We are concerned what the potential impact is to the county budget and our tax rates if it doesn’t pass.”

Van Dien said his concern is that county taxpayers are responsible for a larger cost every time the county receives an FAA grant.

“Our position is that the ordinance is wrong,” he said. “(Airport engineer) Wayne Ferree took samples from the airport and reviewed the pavement studies the county did and found that the estimated weight limit is wrong, and has heard from the FAA that he’s right.”

Van Dien pointed out that federal airport money is drying up and that every time the county takes another grant from the FAA, taxpayers are on the hook to maintain the airport for longer.

Van Dien said his fellow panelists will argue there is no need to change the ordinance.

“There is no need to build the east side soaring facility to preserve safety,” he said. “Unless there’s a significant increase in jet traffic, the safety issue at the airport hasn’t changed in 30 years.”

Van Dien said the expenditure on the east side doesn’t make any sense.

“Unless it is to set us up for a jet invasion,” he said. “The ordinance is riddled with loopholes.”

For example, instead of just banning a control tower or advanced landing system, the ordinance says that neither county general fund nor FAA grant money can be spent to build them.

The ordinance does include sanctions for overweight aircraft, but Van Dien said they are pocket change to someone who owns a 737.

“There’s nothing stopping them today from writing an ordinance that charges landing fees,” he said. “Neither would do much to repair the pavement.”

He pointed out that Pinon Aero, a company with a large development at the airport, is actively advertising for business jet traffic at the airport on their Web site.

“There could be a giant increase in jet traffic at the airport,” he said. “The folks at Pinon Aero are making an active pitch for jet taxis to be domiciled at the airport. I know one of the people involved and they’re not in it to lose money.”

Swabacker said concerns with the airport master plan shouldn’t stop people from voting for the ordinance.

“The master plan can be modified and that it isn’t a reason to reject the ordinance,” he said.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have written several letters to Douglas County saying the current ordinance is discriminatory and violates agreements county representatives signed in order to obtain grants.

The current ordinance has never been enforced, and according to county legal officials can’t be.

Douglas County has taken $18.7 million in grants from the federal government to maintain the airport over the past quarter century, according to county records. The county has contributed $1.15 million during the same time.

Another $8 million in grants is at stake should the federal government decide the county is not in compliance.

County officials have said that without federal money, it would cost taxpayers nearly $5 million over five years to maintain the airport.

Opponents say the county is bowing to pressure from airport businesses to allow larger aircraft to land, and that approving the ordinance would pave the way for development of the airport.