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"Federal money limits county's control of Aspen airport development"
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Federal money limits county's control of airport development
By Andrew Travers
The Aspen (CO) Daily News
Pitkin County commissioners may not have the power to conserve land on the
west side of the airport grounds, due to the strings attached to federal
grants the local government has accepted in recent years.
The commissioners discussed the obligations of those "grant assurances" and
other aspects of the ongoing airport master planning process on Tuesday with
regional officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Airport director Jim Elwood told the commissioners the county has won $64
million in grants for the airport from the FAA over the last decade.
A total of 39 grant assurances are attached to that money, FAA officials
"Instead of a string attached, it's like a giant steel cable that holds up a
bridge ... they never go away," said John Bauer, the FAA's manager of
airports for the Denver region.
The current master plan includes the addition of a new fix-based operator
(FBO) on the airport's west side, where master planners drastically shrunk
the size of development plans for hangars recently, due to community
If the commissioners want to conserve that undeveloped west side land in
perpetuity, and add a new FBO on the east side instead, they can't, Bauer
Because the county represented the area as reserved for "future aeronautical
use" in grant applications, they can't change course now by placing a
conservation easement on it, or denying developers from bidding to build an
FBO there, Bauer explained.
"The 'grant assurances' assure me that we may get something at the airport
that we don't want," said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
Another grant assurance mandates fair competition among bidders for a new
An FBO is a private company that provides services like fueling, maintenance
and other logistics at airports. Atlantic Aviation is the airport's only
The new master planning process was precipitated by individuals seeking to
build a second FBO at the airport in 2007. County officials opted to undergo
a new master planning process before considering a new FBO.
And though the current master plan uses only the FAA's "minimum standard"
size for the west-side development, FBO bidders can present projects with
much larger square footage. Bauer said the county would need to justify
setting a size limit for a future FBO.
"Just to blanket-ly state, 'We don't want it because we don't want it' or
'It's out of character,' we would want more justification [than that],"
While the commissioners can't officially change the zoned use of the west
side of the airport due to the grant restrictions, they're not bound to
approve anything there.
"We don't work for the FAA, we work for the community," Hatfield added.
Along with the grant assurances, the FAA must approve the airport's forecast
for the amount of future use there, and the layout of the master plan.
Elwood reiterated throughout the meeting that the master plan is a
reservation for space, not a final decision on any new development there.
"This is a planning process, not a design for a terminal," Elwood said,
addressing a rising chorus of local criticism of the terminal's size.
The current draft of the master plan calls for a new 80,000-square-foot
terminal. If approved in the master plan, however, that size will not be
Commissioner Rob Ittner recently met with officials at the airport in Santa
Barbara, Calif., where a new airport was built far smaller than the reserved
space in the county master plan. Officials there passed a master plan with a
80,000-square-foot terminal, but eventually approved and built a smaller one
of 62,000 square feet.
"The idea that we have a space reserved that's 80,000 square feet does not
mean we are building an 80,000-square-foot building," Ittner said. "I will
say it bluntly and clearly."
The master plan has been funded by local and federal airport use fees, not
by local or federal tax dollars.
The gallery of the meeting was filled with 20-some people, including members
of the public, county staffers and county commissioner candidates John Young
and Steve Child.
Cliff Runge, who has organized opposition to the master plan, also was in
attendance. The commissioners used the public meeting to address criticisms
of the plan and the process that have been raised by Runge's group and
Commissioners attempted to negate the idea that Elwood is directing their
master planning decisions.
"We're not getting railroaded by any means," Ittner said. "The BOCC is the
policy maker. Not the airport director."
Hatfield added that he understood there is "a true, heartfelt concern about
what could, might, happen at the airport," but encouraged master plan
critics to get informed and get involved in the process.
Commissioner Michael Owsley opened the meeting by listing the multitude of
opportunities for public involvement in the master plan since early 2011: 14
public tours, 11 charettes, nine small group workshops, five citizen input
sessions and two open houses. Tuesday's meeting with the FAA marked the
county commissioners' ninth work session on the plan.
Bauer said communities the size of Pitkin County in the region often hold
one or two public meetings before approving a new airport master plan. He
characterized Pitkin County's level of public outreach as "extraordinary."
On the web:
What are Grant Assurances?
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