EDITORIAL: Hey, wanna buy an airport?

FOR THE LONGEST TIME Saturday afternoon the only flying object at the south end of the Columbia County Airport in West Ghent was a red-tailed hawk wheeling above the field at the south end of the runway near state Route 66. The temperature was around 50 degrees F. The sky was cloudless. Hard to imagine that bird, looking for a rodent lunch, was a hazard to humans.

But think back a few weeks to the outcry that erupted after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to kill snowy owls at JFK Airport as threats to aircraft. Public pressure caused the MTA to switch tactics and try to remove the owls with non-lethal measures instead. The outcome of the JFK incident suggests that when forced to act reasonably, people agree that dangers to aircraft should be minimized. Their debate is about the best ways to do it.

A different kind of safety problem has come up at the Columbia County Airport. According to county officials, it involves trees and other natural features. The county’s professional engineering consultant says some trees are too close to the end of the runway to permit larger aircraft to land and take off within the margin of safety established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

To remedy the problem the county wants to buy land north of the airport and purchase broad easements on other properties so that trees and any other obstructions can be removed. Sounds simple enough except that the land immediately north of the airport is a private golf course, and its primary owner has rejected the county’s offer, saying he wants $2 million, which is three times what the county expects to pay. The county has threatened to use its power of eminent domain to get the property and the owner has vowed to sue.

In recent years Columbia County government has acted as if it likes nothing better than public mud wrestling matches over its own harebrained property deals. Think of the Ockawamick School building, the discarded plan to buy the empty Greenport Walmart, the new Pine Haven Nursing Facility site…. The list goes on.

You’d think county government has no better solution than unleashing a herd of bulldozers with order to plow north until they get to Kinderhook. But not Supervisor John Porreca (R-Greenport). He suggested a rational approach. In effect, he said: Instead of moving the trees away from the airport, why not move the airport away from the trees?

It makes sense. The county doesn’t own the land north of the runway, but it does own the property to the south. Following up, some neighbors determined that shortening the north end of the mile-long runway by 600 feet and adding 250 feetto the south end would save taxpayers about $4 million and not trample private property rights. This would leave a runway long enough so private jets could use the airport safely. The county would need only a small piece of the golf course, and the trees of nearby property owners would not endanger normal flights.

The FAA has the final decision on what makes the airport safe, but at the very least this plan must be given serious consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

It doesn’t matter whether the county’s consultants failed to develop this alternative or the county officials neglected to present it to the public. What matters is that the absence of the “southern option” raises serious questions about the integrity of the airport planning process to date.

The whole airport improvement project is further compromised by the inability of the county to provide an accounting of funds spent on airport consulting fees and the inexcusable decision not to alert airport neighbors whose properties were in the county’s crosshairs.

The only way to restore public confidence in the county’s role at the airport is to hire an outside firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of all airport finances and activities. Any changes should be put on hold until the audit is complete. If the FAA wants changes sooner, the county can always shorten the runway more drastically, even if that means some of the larger jets may be diverted until this mess gets sorted out.

The Board of Supervisors Airport Committee has made a good start by taking time to examine Mr. Porreca’s approach. Now the full board must demand to know all the facts about the airport before county government launches headlong into yet another costly property blunder.

 

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