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Airport ordinance may not be enforceable

by Christy Chalmers

A Douglas County ordinance excluding large planes from Minden-Tahoe Airport may be an unenforceable “paper tiger,” and that’s just one of the issues a temporary panel has to handle.

The committee, which was formed to review weight, noise and protective zoning issues, got formal notice Monday that the voter-imposed ordinance might not survive a legal challenge because Minden-Tahoe gets federal aviation funds and federal rules require equal treatment of all categories of aviators.

That means Minden-Tahoe has to allow any aircraft that its facilities can physically accommodate, or the Federal Aviation Administration could demand the return of millions of dollars’ worth of grants.

“(The ordinance) would not have a legal standing if push came to shove,” said committee chairman Fred Jones. “If the general public wants to limit planes over 50,000 pounds, we have to find another way to do it.”

The ordinance restricts multi-wheeled planes to a weight of 50,000 pounds, with lower limits for other types of aircraft. The intent of the rule was to avoid noise, pollution and other impacts associated with larger planes.

The matter is being reviewed because larger planes aren’t necessarily the noisiest, and aviation promoters think the ordinance may be costing Minden-Tahoe business from larger planes that don’t bring the undesired impacts.

Jones outlined concerns about the ordinance, enacted in 1984, in a four-page memo that he said followed two weeks of research, as well as talks with Bob Morris, a deputy district attorney, and Joe Rodriguez, supervisor of planning and programs at the Federal Aviation Administration district office in Burlingame, Calif.

“The FAA will call the shots if it comes to that,” said Jones. “It does not hold weight. If someone really wanted to challenge it, they would get support from the FAA.”

Jones also pointed to other issues, such as “ethical conflicts” for county employees who have been told to promote Minden-Tahoe and make it self-sufficient while abiding by the voters’ wish to keep larger planes away.

Plus, he said, the ordinance has not eliminated big planes. Air tankers used for fighting fires are based at Minden-Tahoe in the summer, and planes that exceed the ordinance limits do occasionally fly in, paying a landing fee that is meant to cover the additional wear they inflict on the runways.

Talk of potential changes in airport traffic incensed many of the more than 30 residents who attended the meeting. Linda Scruggs asked for figures documenting interest in basing large private planes at Minden-Tahoe.

“I would like to see something that actually spells out the need for this initiative,” she said. “I’d like to have some more specific data.”

Linda Garmong, a Johnson Lane-area resident and former pilot, said she’s worried about safety and wouldn’t welcome traffic from private jets.

“Where’s the most dangerous part of flying? The first three miles. And you want to fly it over my house,” said Garmong.

Committee members emphasized they aren’t favoring any specific change and want to present objective information that will let Douglas residents decide if any changes are in order. They downplayed the prospect of establishing commercial service at Minden-Tahoe, citing a business climate that has included several failed attempts to establish service at nearby South Lake Tahoe, as well as the costs of outfitting Minden-Tahoe for commercial flights.

Even so, skepticism over change remained.

“It could develop into something that we really don’t want,” said Virginia Henningsen, who helped on the original petition drive that led to the ordinance.

The committee gave Airport Manager Jim Braswell a list of issues to research that include the actual physical capacity of Minden-Tahoe’s runways, safety impacts of expanding the planes allowed and potential sanctions for pilots who violate the weight ordinance. He is also to report back on the restrictions that can be imposed and the FAA’s stance on balancing county interests – such as the ordinance – with federal regulations.

The committee is meet again March 6 and may discuss airport noise, in addition to the questions raised Monday.