Commission aims to double airport in five years

Published on Thu, Apr 18, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Commission aims to double airport in five years

By Meg Olson

This weekend, the Blaine airport will celebrate its 55th year, and airport commissioners want to see a growth spurt before it hits 60.

“We’re severely limited by the size of our runway,” said airport commissioner Doug Fenton in an April 15 presentation to city council. “We’ve had some preliminary inquiries from San Juan Airlines. If we had a 3,500 foot runway and a small terminal they’d be happy to service it.” San Juan Airline was reborn in February when the owners of Northwest Seaplanes bought West Isle Air and renamed the airline after the pioneering passenger air service.

“That’s the first encouraging thing I’ve heard about expanding the airport,” said city council member Ken Ely. “It’s always been a field of dreams. If you build it something will happen. If they’re saying they’ll come, then that’s no pipe dream.”

Fenton and other airport commissioners stressed that expanding the airport was the only way to realize its value as a community asset by bringing economic opportunities to Blaine, from air freight to passengers. “Why would I want to put industry in Blaine if I couldn’t use the airport?” Fenton asked, explaining that the 2,400 foot runway now limits the airports uses to small personal aircraft and helicopters. As an example he pointed to the Border Patrol, who now have a hangar at the Bellingham airport. “If we had a better facility we know they’d relocate.”

The airport commission is proposing land acquisition and construction that could cost up to $10 million, including a longer runway, new roads and new buildings. The initial proposal is to acquire all the land between the freeway and Odell Road south of the airport, close Pipeline Road and extend the runway south, across what is now the headwaters of Cain Creek. Ludwick Avenue would be extended along the runway and would split to form a new Odell-Yew link.

“We would need to come up with $600,000 right now to acquire the property to the south of the airport, based on current appraisals” Fenton said. The city has already approved a condemnation of the three parcels immediately south of the runway to remove trees which obstruct the airport flight path. Fenton said the commission now had a $70,000 state grant and $30,000 in airport funds but would be looking for additional state funding and planned to apply to an unnamed private granting agency for the remainder. “They’re heavily involved in the software industry and have a mandate to give away $2.5 million a day,” he said.

Further development of the airport will only bepossible if it was added to a list of airports deemed important to the national transportation system and therefore eligible for federal aid. “At the moment we have the state department of transportation working on getting us on that list. We have no intention of coming to Blaine taxpayers for money,” Fenton said. “If we can’t finance this through other means we won’t do it.”

Once on the federal list, the airport would be eligible for funds through the Airport and Airways Development Program, a fund generated by aviation fuel and ticket sales. It provides for a 90 percent funding but requires that the airport be constructed to federal specifications, which Blaine’s airport is not. “When you go to them with an improvement plan it includes everything you need to meet federal standards,” Fenton said. “They will not only provide dollars for construction and land acquisition but for planning. Nine million won’t make the feds blink. They spent more than that in Friday Harbor.” Fenton said initial federal funding would be used to draft a full facilities improvement plan and address wetland and planning. Future grants would be needed to secure permits, lengthen the runway, expand airport infrastructure and build more facilities for lease, which provide about half airport revenues. “We wouldn’t be looking at a new runway for at least five years,” Fenton said.

Morrie Liebman from Friday Harbor said their airport grew from a facility similar to Blaine’s in 1980 to an airport that sees close to 13,000 passenger trips a year today. “It’s been slow, it’s been hard and it’s been tedious, but it’s been worth it in the advantages to the community,” he said. “A number of businesses opened shop principally because of the added facilities available to them.”

Overall, council members supported the planned airport expansion, but not without some reservations. “Is there a higher value to that property as far as the city is concerned?” said mayor Dieter Schugt, adding Port of Bellingham commissioners had said if the land were not an airport they would be willing to develop it for commercial and light industrial use. “At this point it is used adequately but not enough to be an advantage to the general population.”

“We’re in competition with the Port of Bellingham at the Bellingham airport,” Fenton said. “They’d love to see us closed down.” He said fuel now costs less in Blaine than at other locations in the county, making it an attractive stop, and takeoffs and landing were climbing from last year’s 5,000 mark. Fenton also added there was land near the airport that remained for sale. “Why should we compete with local property owners who have land that’s for sale and sits there?”

Schugt also expressed concern about safety risks with a larger airport between a school and a mall. “At Friday Harbor the school is just as close,” said airport commissioner Jack Kintner. “Proximity to the field is not that much of an issue, especially off to the side.” Kintner also said that once the airport was under federal jurisdiction it would be regulated into being safer and quieter. “Taking a federal spec will make the airport a much better neighbor.” Commissioner Bob Brunkow added that as the runway was lengthened, operations would move out of the school area to the south end.

Another question was how adding proposed land acquisitions, which would incorporate the adult entertainment overlay into the airport, would affect the city’s adult entertainment rules. “We would have to adjust the overlay to insure we have an adequate pool of land available for those uses,” said Terry Galvin, city planning director. “Unless we include adult entertainment as a permitted use in the airport zone,” Fenton suggested.
John Liebert asked if moving the airport was a better solution than expanding it. “It would never happen now,” said Fenton, pointing to a litany of permitting requirements. “Building a runway this year is about as easy as building a penitentiary. You wouldn’t see it in my lifetime or yours.”

Most council members were enthusiastic about the possibilities of a commercial airport in Blaine. “We have to look at our community assets and the airport is one of them, and possibly a great one. I for one smell a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Ken Ely. “This is something we have to do as a community,” Mike Myers agreed. “If the airport is not allowed to grow it will die.”

Council members agreed with city manager Gary Tomsic that a prudent first step would be a third party assessment of the proposed expansion, perhaps based on a recent Washington State University study of rural airports. .

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