County wants voters out |

County wants voters out

by Terry Burnes

Douglas County has big plans for our airport and wants you to get out of the way of them. In November voters will be asked to replace our existing voter approved airport weight limit with an airport ordinance that is little more than an empty promise.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2002 voters adopted a residential growth limit designed to keep development here at sustainable levels. But the county had big plans to double our population, so it threw in with developers and fought the voters to a standstill.

That certainly turned out well. We’re now losing population and have the wreckage of the county’s speculative plans all around us, our over-hyped development-based economy and county budget in shambles and little prospect for recovery any time soon.

So has the county learned its lesson? Of course not. It’s repeating this approach all over again at the airport, speculating on growth that, if it does occur, will adversely affect the quality of life here and drive soaring away. And, if it doesn’t, could leave taxpayers with a big bill.

The way to control our airport is through the infrastructure we build. Want a jetport? Build that. Want a country airport? Build that. History elsewhere shows ordinances like the one proposed here simply don’t work. You can’t build a bigger airport and then keep it “small” through regulation.

Airport boosters say to relax, nothing bad will happen. But many communities have lost control of their airports by allowing infrastructure improvements to proceed on that assumption.

The real problem here is the 2008 Airport Master Plan. It creates a new second airport to the east, to which soaring would be relegated, freeing the old airport to the west for further development by the likes of Pinon Aero (go to to see what they have in mind).

That would bring larger, faster, noisier aircraft here, spreading impacts through our valley. Given our favorable weather and low costs, the possibilities are many: airline training operations; charter jet operations; fractional (time shared) jet operations; Silicon Valley jets based here; personal jets of wealthy Tahoe property owners or visitors; Tahoe passenger service.

The only thing standing in the way is our existing voter-approved weight limit. The County needs FAA funds to implement its plans. But the FAA won’t release that money because it views our weight limit as discriminatory. They say that if an aircraft can be physically accommodated it must be allowed here.

So the county is asking us to replace our weight limit with a new ordinance. But by rejecting that ordinance we can force the County to reevaluate its plans and “right size” our airport to make it a better match for our valley.

The county says the proposed ordinance will be an adequate control. But it contains many loopholes.

It allows the flawed master plan to be fully implemented.

It leaves the weight limit unspecified, to be set later based on studies managed by County staff. It will likely be much higher despite evidence that the runway isn’t as strong as the County claims.

It allows taxiways and ramps to be strengthened to match the runway, eliminating a major constraint on operations by larger aircraft.

It allows exceptions for overweight aircraft.

It establishes a curfew but makes it voluntary.

It allows any improvements necessary to meet FAA standards, whatever those might be.

I could go on but you get the point. For every limit there is a loophole. So the door would be wide open to the larger, faster, noisier aircraft we don’t want. The impacts to the community are obvious.

But should pilots be concerned? Absolutely. A “world class soaring center” to the east sounds good. But there is no guarantee that anything beyond a few taxiways and ramps will ever be built.

Maybe our soaring pilots should think about the senior center that the County talks about but never builds.

And if this plan succeeds, many traditional users will be forced out. Soaring simply cannot coexist with the likes of what Pinon Aero proposes. If the “big boys” succeed, the “little guys” will go. Ask the boosters to show you airports where jets and gliders coexist.

But this isn’t just an aviation issue. It’s a fiscal issue too.

The FAA collects taxes from all of us every time we fly. It then doles that money out to airport operators, to build aviation infrastructure. Sounds great. We get to use other people’s money to develop our airport.

But there’s a catch. When we use FAA money to build something we are obligated to operate and maintain it, at local expense. If things go well that money comes from airport users. But if things go awry, it comes from taxpayers.

The county proposes to spend $12.5 million on airport infrastructure over the next few years, mostly to create the new airport to the east. We will be obligated to operate and maintain that for 20 years, whether it succeeds or not.

The county has done little to evaluate the financial feasibility of what it proposes, just as it did little to evaluate the feasibility of its speculative development plans for the County as a whole. So it really doesn’t know if the airport will be self-supporting or not.

The county is simply gambling that if it builds the airport as planned sufficient users will emerge to pay for its operation. “If we build it they will come.” But if they’re wrong, taxpayers will be on the hook.

So, the community loses either way.

If the County’s plans are successful we’ll suffer the impacts of more larger, faster, noisier aircraft operating up and down our valley. And soaring will be forced out.

And if the County’s plans fail, taxpayers will be left holding the bag for the operation and maintenance of an expanded airport that can’t support itself.

You can put a stop to all this and force a reconsideration of these ill-conceived plans by voting no on Question 1.

Terry Burnes is a former California planner.