Will airport head south?

HUDSON–Shortening the Columbia County Airport at the north end by 600 feet and adding 250 feet to the south could make the airport safer and remove the need for county government to take or control the land of a dozen local property owners. It might also save taxpayers millions of dollars.

That was the conclusion of lawyer Ken Dow, who represents Town of Ghent landowners Michael Schrom and Patti Matheney Schrom. They are concerned about belated efforts by the county to comply with runway safety standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Those efforts include a proposal to buy 16 acres and secure restrictive easements on another 96 acres at the Meadowgreens Golf Course, possibly through the power of eminent domain, and could lead to clearing land and installing lights on 12 nearby private properties.

Mr. Dow told the Airport Committee of the county Board of Supervisors Friday, December 27 that a different approach recently suggested by Greenport Supervisor John Porreca (R) could be modified slightly to satisfy FAA rules without limiting the capacity of the single runway airport to safely handle the corporate and private jets.

He said the new proposal would require the purchase of a much smaller piece of Meadowgreens land not presently used for golfing. The concept of adjusting the length and position of the runway was also supported by Mahlon Richards, president of Richmor Aviation, the private company that operates the airport for the county.

The issue of changes to the airport runway came up last year, when county economic development officials, citing a 2011 consulting engineer’s report, said the airport would lose access to some federal funds and face restrictions on the types of aircraft that could land at the airport–mostly jets–if it did not take steps to meet the FAA standards.

The standards involve the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ), which the FAA defines as: “a trapezoidal area ‘off the end of the runway end that serves to enhance the protection of people and property on the ground’ in the event an aircraft lands or crashes beyond the runway end.” These zones are “closest to the airport.”

The FAA also requires an overlaid “object free area” at each end of the runway. The county’s problem is that Meadowgreens lies at the north end of the runway, and while golf courses are acceptable uses in an RPZ, some trees and ponds on the course are considered aviation obstacles. So the county proposed buying a part of the golf course and removing the trees and other “obstacles,” setting a value on the section of the golf course that it needs at $629,000.

Carmen Nero, the primary owner of Meadowgreens, has rejected that price, saying the property is worth more than $2 million. Mr. Nero could not be reached for comment before press deadline for this story.

Mr. Dow , representing the Schroms, filed suit against the county last year in an effort to force the release more information about the operation of the airport. That suit was recently dismissed by state Supreme Court Judge Richard Mott, but from the “thousands of pages” of county airport documents that were made available, Michael and Patti Schrom learned that theirs was one of the 12 properties north of the airport in addition to the golf course that may be affected by the need to remove obstacles to aviation. The properties were identified by the county’s airport consultant, although they were excluded from the consultant’s consideration in the environmental assessment compiled in 2011.

The cost of securing “avigation easements,” a legal term for agreements that, in this case, would give the county the right to do anything on the land required to meet airport safety rules, was estimated at what appear to be vastly different rates without explanation for the differences in a document supplied by Mr. Dow. And even after negotiations with Mr. Nero had begun, the county did not inform the Schroms and the other property owners that their land would be affected. “The 12 property owners were completely kept in the dark,” Mr. Dow said.

He said that the costs as estimated by the C&S Companies, the consulting engineers for the county on the airport, are out of date and, in some cases, “significantly understated” the costs of obtaining land or easements to private property.

The C&S proposal would cost $3.8 million if the original numbers are accurate–or as much as $6 million if Mr. Dow is right. He believes the new plan he presented would cost less than $2 million.

The solution first proposed by Mr. Porreca at an earlier meeting was to shorten the north end of the runway and add some pavement at the south end, where the county already owns land. At least one member of the audience Friday questioned why C&S had not suggested this option. Neither the committee chairman, Art Bassin (D-Ancram), nor the other two committee members present, Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer, who caucuses with the Republicans, and Ghent Supervisor Michael Benvenuto (R) could say.

There are potential problems associated with extending the south end of the runway, which stops a short distance from state Route 66 and is already surrounded by a field–the object free area. Beyond the field the land drops off to Mud Creek and the surrounding wetland and nature preserve.

But the materials submitted to the committee by Mr. Dow contain an aerial view of the runway indicating that even with the addition of 250 feet of pavement at the south end, the object free area there would stop short of the creek itself. He said any technical issues involving the protection of wetlands at the south end would be no greater than the same types of problems posed by other wetlands at the north end of the runway.

The area inside the RPZ further south lies below the runway and doesn’t present a hazard to people or aircraft.

At one point during Friday’s meeting at the County Office Building Mr. Bassin reported on a suggestion from county Commissioner of Public Works David Robinson that the FAA could place aviation warning lights in the tops of trees instead of cutting trees down along the northern approach to the runway. That triggered scoffing and laughter, as audience members imagined the challenges involved. And Mr. Benvenuto said later that the FAA had explained that the proposal was to erect towers with lights.

Though no one in the audience greeted the possibility of treetop-level lights with enthusiasm, the suggestion did serve to underscore point that Mr. Dow made that moving the start of the runway south 600 feet would allow aircraft to approach and leave the north end of the runway well above most of the existing trees. And that would reduce or eliminate the need for the county to obtain easements or purchase private land.

The county airport runway is now just over a mile long. The plan to lop off the 600 feet at the north and add only 250 feet at the south end would leave 5,000 feet oftarmac, enough for all the jets that currently use the runway to take off and land safely under FFA regulations. Mr. Richards of Richmor, which flies its own jets in and out of the airport, said the runway could be even shorter and still be safe.

Mr. Bassin said the committee would discuss what’s now being called the “modified Porreca plan” with C&S representatives at a January 20 meeting. “I haven’t run into anybody who thinks this isn’t a viable idea,” he said.

He said this week that the Board of Supervisors “favors the 5,000-foot runway,” which he called “jet friendly.” But he said there are county residents who question the need to spend funds to improve a longer runway when the increased length benefits only a small number of larger jets that could use other airports in the region.

“I don’t think we’re saying this is the best plan,” Ms. Schrom told the committee. But she and other residents near the airport do want the committee to consider options other than the one originally proposed.

She also said that one of the documents not available from the county is the contract the county has with the consulting firm, C&S Companies, including the full amount the county has paid the consulting firm.


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