Usually the creation of a master plan is thought of as a tool to help protect an airport.
But as airport officials at Blaine Municipal Airport/Dierks Field (4W6) in Blaine, Wash., have learned, a master plan — or rather a lack of federal funding for one — can lead to an airport closing.
“The issue started a few years ago with trees in the approach to runway 32,” said Doug Fenton, chairman of the Blaine Airport Commission, which oversees the airport, situated on 34 acres about a mile outside Blaine, which is close to the Canadian border.
Established in 1947 as a private grass strip, the airport eventually grew into a municipal facility with the city of Blaine as its sponsor. There is no FBO at the airport, but there is a handful of aviation businesses. Approximately 30 aircraft are based at Blaine, which has about 5,000 operations annually. The asphalt runway, 14/32, measures 2,490 feet. The end of 32 is displaced 300 feet because of trees.
“We could not get the owner of the property to cut the trees, so we had to condemn the land,” Fenton explained. “It cost us about $700,000 to $800,000 to get those trees cut down and that put us in a financial hole.”
To get federal money to repay the loan for the property acquisition and tree cutting, the airport needed an updated master plan.
“The consultant who spearheaded the process was an ex-FAA employee, who indicated that the FAA would like our idea to relocate the runway so that we could widen it and lengthen it to 3,200 feet so that we could have an instrument approach and have runway safety areas,” said Fenton. “The master plan came out to be about $20 million total, of which $16 million was public money. The project involved acquiring 70 acres and dealing with wetland issues. It was an extremely long and drawn-out process. We were optimistic that the FAA was going to help us, but when it came down to the crunch they said ‘we don’t have the money to fund that.’ If we could fund the master plan right now, the airport would not be closing. It is closing for lack of money.”
That’s a fair assessment, says Meredith Riley, finance director for the City of Blaine.
“When the council learned about the lack of FAA funding, it started looking at alternative uses for the property,” she said. “The council has decided that the best economic use of the property is not as an airport, although no decisions have been made yet on what the property will be used for nor have there been any specific proposals.”
FAA officials could not be reached by press time.
The ordinance — which narrowly passed by a 4-3 vote — mandates that the council develop a plan that will shut down the field within two years. According to Riley, there are no outstanding federal grants but there may be some state obligations that will have to be paid.
Fenton noted that the decision to close the airport was not unexpected, but obviously not welcomed by airport tenants.
“I know of one person who is meeting with an attorney to bring action because of this,” he said, adding that more lawsuits are likely to follow. “By the time they pay off old state grants and settle with lease holders who are being ejected prematurely, I am sure that the price of closing the airport will equal or exceed what they get for the land,” he said.
Fenton hopes other small airports will use what happened to Blaine Municipal as a cautionary tale.
“Don’t believe everything you hear about FAA’s ability to fund runway improvements,” he warned. “They may do it for large airports, but not for small airports. We thought that because we have strategic value because we’re on the border that they would loosen up the purse strings, but it didn’t happen.”
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