EDITORIAL: Public helped shape airport success

BLAME IT ON THE WINDS of change. The big news story at the beginning of last year–what to do about the county airport–isn’t big news anymore. Other stories now grab the headlines. And no wonder. Conflict and change capture our attention. Who cares about a government project with a happy ending?

As reported here last week the end of the airport saga was indeed good news for county taxpayers. Instead of having to shoulder a portion of the costs for a runway area upgrade, estimated at somewhere between $3.8- and $6 million, the Federal Aviation Administration now agrees that the way to make the airport safer for private jets is to paint lines on the runway saying, in effect: Land here.

This will cost about 5% of the estimate for upgrading the runway. The wasteful, supersized runway plan would have spent tax money lavishly on chopping down lots of trees and seizing private property from unwilling owners, all for no good reason at all. Consultants who should have known better and self-appointed local experts assured the public the big plan was essential for the airport to operate safely. It sounded reasonable even though it seemed as if the authorities anticipated jumbo jets using our single-strip airport. All it lacked was a landing pad for the Tooth Fairy.

What saved the county a pile of money plus a lot of trouble and time was an open process of discovery fostered by the Airport Committee of the county Board of Supervisors. The committee welcomed comments and creative ideas from its members and the public. Most committee members used what they learned to make good decisions.

The board should review how the committee functioned and adopt its approach as a best practice for handling major public projects in the future.

One of the takeaways from this episode is the need to treat the opinions of experts with skepticism. In the matter of the airport the information they offered came with two distinct biases: 1. There’s only one way to solve this problem, and, 2. The more we spend to solve it, the better the outcome will be.

Fortunately, the committee, led by Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram) with bi-partisan support from most of his colleagues, managed to sort through this fog of bias and craft a plan that received verbal approval late last month from the FAA. The relatively small amount of funding required for the change is reportedly available.

There’s another aspect of this story that shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated. The county might have lurched ahead with a costly airport project nobody needed if it there hadn’t been persistent pressure from citizen activists, otherwise known as our neighbors.

They demanded a better plan and got one.

These folks didn’t just show up and complain, though that’s important. They got organized and they brought new information to the process. They questioned the official version of the facts. They stayed with it and the result benefitted them and every other taxpayer in the county.

Exercising the constitutional right to assemble and speak freely doesn’t always end successfully as far as the speakers are concerned. For reasons still not entirely clear, the county rushed through the process of selling Pine Haven Rehabilitation and Nursing Facility in Philmont. The outcome of that decision may lead to improved services at Pine Haven and a reduced burden for taxpayers, but even if it does, the flawed process of offloading the nursing home generated bitterness and suspicion that’s likely to resurface in response to future county initiatives.

Civic engagement by way of local political action is full of setbacks. The trick for people who want to improve their community is to learn from failures as well as victories. Use what works and jettison the rest. When residents of Ghent spoke up in opposition to the proposed route for new power lines through their town, the power company at first refused to consider changes. But eventually it agreed to a simpler, much less intrusive plan. On a larger scale, residents around the county and the region have forced the state Public Service Commission to rethink a plan for new high voltage lines that may not be needed.

Don’t want to get involved? Too late. If you’re breathing and you live here, you already involved. Think of the airport as one of many examples. There are times to vote and times to raise your voice. But there’s more to civic engagement than that. Sometimes just showing up is all you need to do.

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