Is an airport the best use of state-owned land? It depends on who you ask – especially in Arizona.
In the Grand Canyon State, the State Lands Department is mandated to use land held in the public trust in “a manner that generates the most revenue for the state.” The revenue is used for education.
There are dozens of airports on state lands and some pilots and airport operators are concerned that aviation may be pushed aside so that the land can be redeveloped to generate greater revenue.
Developing an airport on state lands is difficult, say owners, because they are limited by short-term leases.
One of these owners is Roy Coulliette, who owns Turf Soaring School, a nationally known glider school at Pleasant Valley Airport (P48) in Peoria, Ariz. The 800-acre airport is built on state land.
“We call ourselves the little airport with the big heart,” he says. “We built it ourselves, cutting it out of the desert.”
The privately owned, public-use uncontrolled airport is daytime VFR only, home to gliders, airplanes and ultralights. More than half of the 61 aircraft based there are gliders.
“We have four runways, three parallels and one crosswind, but only one of them is paved with recycled asphalt that the city gave us when they tore up a road,” Coulliette says. “The runways can chew up propellers and the bottoms of the gliders.”
Coulliette says he’d like to pave the runways, but he doesn’t have the money. He can’t qualify for state and federal grants because his lease with the state is a standard 10-year lease. He needs to have at least a 20-year lease to qualify for state and federal programs, he says.
“You can’t even attract private investors with a 10-year lease,” he laments.
It is possible for airport operators to get a longer lease, says Deputy Land Commissioner Richard Hubbard. “They can get a 20-year lease, but because of our statutes, we have to put it up to public auction. If that happens, other bidders, such as land developers, can compete for the lease.”
“I can’t compete with land developers,” Coulliette counters. “They have deep pockets. I don’t have that kind of money.”
That’s why the state grants 10-year leases — “so the developers don’t get everything,” says Hubbard, adding he is aware that the lease for Pleasant Valley Airport expires in a few years. “We have the authority to renew their lease and we probably will renew it for the next 10 years.”
Hubbard isn’t willing to go out further than that, noting, “The city of Peoria is growing and has identified the area as suitable for residential housing in the future. Also, the airport is close to Luke Air Force Base. The base is on record as saying that they are fine with the airport as it is today, but they are opposed to airport expansion. Also, the Air Force doesn’t know what the mission of the base will be down the road.”
The airport doesn’t want to expand, Coulliette says. “We just want to improve what we have now,” he explains.
CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION
The only way to change how the state — and, therefore, the airport — does business, is to change the Arizona State Constitution. A bill to do that, HCR 2004, the “state trust lands: airport leases” bill, was recently passed by the state’s House of Representatives. According to Phil Corbell, a pilot and activist who was key in getting the bill introduced, it would have changed the state constitution to let airports on state lands apply for 25- to 50-year leases without competitive bidding. In turn the airports could then apply for up to $150 million annually of federal funding from the Airport Improvement Program. If passed by the Arizona Legislature and signed by the governor, it would be put on the ballot for Arizona citizens to vote on.
As this issue was going to press, Corbell noted the bill had been tabled in the Senate.
“We will try again next year,” he stated, noting the change is necessary because the rules regarding airport leases were written at a time when aviation was a novelty and, as such, need to be updated.
“At the time when the 10-year leases were written, no one knew how big aviation was going to be or how important it was going to be not only to the state, but to the nation in terms of transportation,” he explains. “It’s time to update the law because aviation has changed. When we became a state we didn’t know we would need to protect aviation. We need to set aside land for airports and make sure that land is used for aviation only and not sold to the highest bidder.”
According to Corbell, the State Lands Department seems to be on a mission to close airports.
“The Department of Administration told the State Lands Department that airports are inherently dangerous, so they don’t want airports on state lands,” he says. “There are 56 airports on state lands and the State Lands Department is trying to shut them all down. Five airports were shut down in the first two months of this year!”
Hubbard confirms that there are airports on state land, but says that the information about the number of airports and the state’s attitude toward them that is being circulated in the pilot community is incorrect.
“We are being framed as trying to shut down airports and that is not true,” he counters. “We are not in the business of shutting down airports.”
Part of the problem, he says, is the definition of what constitutes an airport.
“We define airports as improved landing areas that have other facilities, like hangars and maybe a pilots’ lounge,” he explains. “Airstrips, on the other hand, can be ploughed areas on a ranch.”
Hubbard notes there are 13 legal airports and airstrips on state lands. “In some cases we have airstrips that are in trespass (have been built without state permission),” he says. “There are also airstrips that were created legally, but that have been abandoned.”
One of the challenges, he notes, is working with the FAA to identify where all the airports/airstrips are.
“Some of them have dual names or the coordinates we get for them are off,” he explains. “Others really aren’t airports or airstrips at all, but rather wide spots in the road that have been used as airstrips. We have closed 11 in cooperation with the FAA since 2003.”
Also placing pressure on airports, according to Corbell, is the level of insurance the state requires. That’s forcing some out of business.
“If you have an airport on state land that has commercial operations, you are required to carry $5 million in insurance with the state named as beneficiary,” he says. “For smaller operations, you need $3 million and for your own dirt strip, you need to have $1 million.”
Those insurance requirements came from the state’s risk management department, according to Hubbard.
“It is determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the activity at the location,” he says. “They determined that there is a potential for high liability at these airports, so they came up with $5 million for commercial activity and $1 million for private use. The figures came from the insurance industry, which views recreational flying as high risk. There is also the environmental aspect. It is the state’s responsibility to clean up damage that has happened over the years from pesticides if the area was used for crop dusting and gas and oil leaks in some cases.”
Even when an airport or airstrip is abandoned — or built illegally — the state’s liability remains, he adds. “We have a responsibility to take them out because they are not producing revenue, but are still a liability to the state,” he says. “There is also our mandate to be sure the land held in the public trust is used for the highest and best use.”
One of the airports on state land that was recently closed is Tuweep (L50), a rugged dirt landing strip on the north side of the Grand Canyon. A photograph of the airport posted on the Arizona Department of Transportation web page shows a narrow runway in the beige soil. The airstrip lies just outside of the Grand Canyon restricted airspace and for years was used by rangers and firefighters.
It is also a great location to view the Grand Canyon, says Corbell.
The problem, says Hubbard, is that the leasee abandoned the property and the state could not find anyone else who was interested in taking it over.
“It is a well-known fact that we tried for five years to find someone who would take over the property and manage the operations of the facility and compensate us for it,” he said. “That includes appealing to all the federal agencies that have stuff to do with the park, such as the Bureau of Land Management.”
Corbell noted that pilots are keeping a close eye on Tuweep, to see if the area is taken out of aviation use.
“It appears that the State Lands Department may be eager to sell or lease these properties to developers or others who will pay a much higher fee than the airport/airfield/airstrip users can afford — which is why we need the legislature to protect aviation in Arizona,” he concludes.