Groupsdebate ‘highest and best’ use of airportland

Published on Thu, Sep 21, 2006 by ara Nelson

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Groups debate ‘highest and best’ use of airport land

By Tara Nelson

In two meetings this week, airport opponents and supporters weighed alternatives to the development of the Blaine municipal airport.

The first plan – presented by the Alternative Land Use Committee, a group formed to study alternative uses for the Blaine municipal airport – predicted a mix of retail and industrial uses over the short and long term for the 42 acres currently occupied by the airport.

Paul Sorensen, a principal researcher with BST and Associates, said with 45,000 square feet of retail development and 130,000 square feet of industrial development in 2025, the city of Blaine could expect as much as 332 additional jobs and annual tax revenues of approximately $149,000.

To arrive at those figures, Sorensen said the committee used state projections for population growth and the estimated share of growth expected to occur in Whatcom County, Blaine.

An expansion called for under the airport master plan, meanwhile, would bring in approximately 149 jobs and annual tax revenues of $96,000, according to the report, which used figures provided by the Blaine airport commission.

The cost to close the airport could offset those financial benefits, said Doug Fenton, chair of the airport commission. Fenton cited a report completed by city attorney Jon Sitkin, which found that closing the airport could cost somewhere between $1 and $4 million, depending on a number of possibilities including state and federal grant repayment and litigation from current leaseholders.

Add to that, the cost of preparing the site for development such as runway removal and grading, which is estimated at $400,000 to be paid for by the city. Fenton also claimed the alternative study failed to include leaseholder taxes that he estimated at about $23,000, of which the city would collect approximately 25 percent, and an annual operating revenue surplus of approximately $30,000.With those factors included, Fenton said he estimated the total annual tax revenue to the city to be around $185,000.

Fenton also argued that much of the manufacturing and industrial growth can still happen in Blaine even if the airport stays.

“There is nothing magical about the airport site,” he said. “Industrial growth is going to happen whether it happens on the airport or off the airport. So you can have your cake and eat it, too.”

When this reporter asked Sorensen if he had included estimated tax revenues from the 45,000 square feet of retail space included in the Airport Master Plan, he said no. But while some retail development could occur in conjunction with the airport expansion, the forecasted demand would exceed the amount of land available by 7 percent, he said.

In response to a question during Monday’s meeting by council member Bruce Wolf about possible future annexation or zoning of adjacent land to accommodate that growth, Sorensen said that would likely be difficult. “When you get down to that small of a piece of industrial property, it will be the remainder of very small parcels,” he said. “The difficulty is that different property owners have a different perspectives of what they should do with their property.”

Blaine resident Jason Burke asked council members when they plan on making a decision. “We’ve heard both sides of the story at this point, and the inevitable question is where do we go from here?”
Mayor Mike Myers said he hopes the council will make a decision soon – especially considering the upcoming October deadline for federal grant applications for the 2007 fiscal year.

Former Blaine mayor Elma Wagner recieved an applause when she encouraged the council to make the decision themselves.

“I don’t think everything comes down to this dollar and that dollar,” she said. “There are other factors to be considered. But regardless, I want you to make the decisions. You’re the ones who have the job. I helped elect you to do that job.”