Airport panel calls for shorter runway

W.GHENT–The chairman backed by what appears to be a majority of the Columbia County Airport Committee consider the best option for the county airport is to reduce the length of the mile-long runway several hundred feet. The new plan would cost less than a proposal previously under consideration and would permit the airport to meet federal safety standards. It may also avoid the need for county Board of Supervisors to take private land from the golf course at the north end of the runway.

At the close of an hour-and-a-half public meeting Thursday, January 30 at the Ghent firehouse, committee Chairman Art Bassin (D-Ancram) said he would draft a resolution for the committee to adopt at its February 12 session recommending the shorter runway option to the full Board of Supervisors.

Mr. Bassin laid out five different options at the firehouse meeting and asked for comments from committee members and the public. He said the purpose of the committee was to explore the facts and find the best alternative to recommend to the Board of Supervisors that would comply with Federal Aviation Administration concerns about obstacles that threaten landings and takeoffs. The FAA previously informed the county that it could lose future funding if it fails to follow its 2003 master plan and enlarge a runway safety zone.

Mr. Bassin said this week that the new plan, if approved by the Board of Supervisors, is intended to address the FAA’s concerns.

The FAA was on the mind of David Robinson, county commissioner of public works, as he spoke to the audience at the firehouse. He said a safety zone 1,000 feet long is required for a plane to “safely abort a takeoff” or land “short of the runway.”

The county airport has a full safety zone at the south end of the runway but not at the north end.

Based on previous studies and proposals, the county sought last year bring the airport into compliance by acquiring 16 acres north of the runway owned by the Meadowgreens Golf Course. But Carmen Nero, one of the owners of Meadowgreens, rejected the county’s offer of $629,000 to pay for the land and costs associated with configuring the golf course. His refusal to sell led the county to begin interviewing law firms to handle taking golf course land by power of eminent domain.

Property owned by other airport neighbors might also be taken or subjected to restrictive easements under the old plan, but those neighbors have raised doubts about the accuracy data in the original proposal and suggested less costly alternatives.

Last week Mr. Bassin presented the “pros and cons” of the options the county has, one of which is to do nothing and maintain the 5,350-foot runway as is.

Ghent resident Mark Johnson asked Mr. Bassin whether the 1,000-foot safety zone was an FAA requirement. Mr. Bassin said it was a recommendation, not a requirement, but he added that failure to comply could jeopardize federal funding for future improvements at the airport.

Mr. Robinson said that the FAA typically pays for 90% of capital projects and the state Department of Transportation pays for 5%, leaving the county to pay the remaining 5%. He said one upcoming project the airport will need to complete is overlaying the runway. Mr. Robinson said that if the airport is not in compliance, the county might have to “pay the full 100%” of the cost of the project.

A second option is to shorten the runway to 4,500 feet. Mr. Bassin said this would be the quickest path to FAA compliance, because the 850 feet of the runway not used for regular operations could be considered part of the safety zone. The runway pavement would not be ripped up, but it would be marked differently, officials said.

But Mahlon Richards, president of Richmor Aviation, the private company that operates the airport for the county, has said a runway that short would limit the ability of some private and corporate jets to use the airport.

Community and committee members present at Thursday’s meeting made clear that the popular option is the one that calls for shortening the regularly used part of the runway by 350 feet to a total of 5,000 feet. Under this plan, the shortened runway would also be shifted south and there would then be enough land to create the 1,000-foot safety zone to the north.

Mr. Bassin said this would still accommodate the jets that now use the airport and would cost less than the proposal to take 16 acres through eminent domain, which he said would cost at least “$3.4 million plus whatever legal costs are involved with the eminent domain proceedings.” A 5,000-foot runway would also have minimal impact to the neighboring properties north and west of the airport. Supporters do not believe that shifting runway operations south would affect the county’s Mud Creek Environmental Learning Center at the southern end of the airport.

“I do not favor eminent domain under any circumstances,” Ghent Supervisor Michael Benvenuto (R) said during his remarks.

Mr. Richards said the 5,000-foot plan would not have a negative impact on his business.

Three committee members, Supervisors Art Baer (D-Hillsdale), Mike Benson (R-New Lebanon) and John Porreca (R-Greenport) did not in attend the Thursday meeting. But each submitted written comments, which Mr. Bassin read to the meeting.

Mr. Baer wrote that he supports the 5,000-foot plan as long as it receives financial support from the FAA. Mr. Porreca, who introduced the idea of moving the runway southward, wrote that he supports the plan 5,000-foot runway plan and opposes “spending taxpayers’ money in pursuing eminent domain proceedings.”

Mr. Benson wrote that he would like to see the runway remain at its current length and for the county to acquire land through negotiation. He wrote that eminent domain should be “a last resort.”

Mr. Bassin said that if the Airport Committee and the full Board of Supervisors approve his resolution for the 5,000-foot runway, the plan will next go to the FAA, which will be asked to fund a feasibility study to determine whether the plan can work.

The Airport Committee will meet again Wednesday, February 12 at 3 p.m. at the County Office Building, 401 State Street, Hudson. Following that, the committee will brief the full Board of Supervisors at a special 6 p.m. meeting and then send the measure to the Finance Committee, which is expected to review it prior to the regular meeting of the full board at 7 p.m. The board may vote on the measure Wednesday evening.

At the West Ghent firehouse last Thursday, the Airport Committee received applause from the audience at the conclusion of the session.

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