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"Alamogordo, New Mexico airport controversy takes flight"



Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Airport controversy takes flight
By Michael Shinabery
The Alamogordo (NM) Daily News

 
Is it "ch-ch-ch-changes" as David Bowie once sang, or more like the play
"Much Ado About Nothing"?

The Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport Board is revising the ordinance
governing airport operations. On Monday the board held an emergency meeting
to form the committee to draft suggested changes upon which city
commissioners will eventually vote. The meeting was a follow up to one last
week that turned hostile between the board, Airport Manager Rudy Clarke, and
pilots and aircraft owners who lease hangars. There the latter accused
Clarke of disrupting the business-as-usual climate they insist has worked
well and without problems for years. Pilot Mike Haymes is one of several who
accuse Clarke of creating "non-existing problems."

But Clarke, hired in 2004, said his responsibility is to ensure a safe
operation that complies with all laws, as well as manage the city's
interests.

To make sure matters did not get out of hand Monday after last week's
contentious meeting - a shouting match where Clarke said one man physically
threatened him - Alamogordo Department of Public Safety Officer Chuck Wood
stood watch.

What Chairman of the Board Jim Talbert and board members heard were
frustrated complaints from those who have done business with the city for
many years. Haymes said city personnel (whom he did not publicly name)
covertly made revisions and put them on the commissioners' Feb. 8 consent
agenda for vote without discussion or public input. If the changes had not
been inadvertently discovered the night before the commissioners' meeting
and protests made to the commission, Haymes said those revisions would have
been swiftly approved.

"This was a rotten, underhanded way of doing it. I think no one else knew
and I think it was designed that way," Haymes said.

He and others believe the motive is "revenue."

"It's only money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money," said
aircraft owner Gayle Finch, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together. "What
started this nonsense? People who decided they want to squeeze a few more
bucks out of us?"
Clarke, though, said in recent years state laws and regulations have
changed, especially in the post-9-11 world. The city's last airport master
plan was in 1992. The airport is known as a general aviation airport with no
control tower continually monitoring inbound and outbound traffic. Such
airports cannot continue to conduct businesses as usual, he said, and have
no choice but to conform to newly enacted rules.

"Don't go contrary to the federal grant agreements," Clarke cautioned. "The
city can do whatever it wants as long as it's in conformity with the grant
agreements."

Haymes and others insist it is another example of the federal government
usurping local governments' authorities.
While Talbert concurred Federal Aviation Administration regulations are "not
arguable," he said local requirements are "changeable because the city
writes them and that's who we are." To ensure regulatory adherence and
fairness, what Clarke described as "blanket" leases "applicable to everyone"
are being drafted. He said the leases treat all equally.

"The state Department of Aviation is in the process of drawing up a set of
master leases. I am the committee chair within the state of New Mexico,"
Clarke said. "I have already started to put together standard leases with
standard provisions."
Talbert likened them to a "cafeteria plan" where airports can insert the
prewritten regulatory language applicable to their operation. Pilots would
then know there is no variance in regulations from airport to airport.

There are municipal changes Clarke wants, too, specific to Alamogordo which
he said are required for safe operation. They include proof from those who
perform aircraft maintenance-for-hire that they have purchased city licenses
and liability insurance that holds the "city harmless," he said. The city
could then collect gross receipts taxes from them, he said.
But pilots pointed out there are cases where a plane, including military
aircraft, might make an emergency stop in Alamogordo. Several said a
specialized mechanic brought in for the job is not going to go through the
process of obtaining a license and buying insurance for only a few hours',
one-time job.

"Jim, you've got to get 'user friendly' in there somehow," one man told
Talbert.
We want an intelligently written ordinance that works," Talbert said.

Clarke is also concerned about parking. Pilots, he said, leave their cars by
the hangars where they are hazardous to taxiing planes. In a collision, he
said, a car will always "lose." Some vehicles are left in the hangar. The
ordinance, though, prohibits cars in shared hangars. If in single hangars,
vehicles cannot be left for long periods even though pilots may be on an
overnight or cross-country flight. For some such as Finch, who is
handicapped, parking in the airport parking lot and toting luggage all the
way to the hangars is an impossibility, she said.
Security is also a concern.

"I want to know if there's any way we can track, update (gate passes),"
Talbert said. "That's a security issue."
Pilots and others need preapproved authorization to get through locked
gates.

One pilot argued it is them and aircraft owners who most care about the
operation. With all of them "watching, roaming the grounds day or night," he
said, there will always someone on-site to notice out-of-the-ordinary
activity.
City commissioners Don Cooper, Ed Cole and Ron Griggs listened to the more
than hour-long discussion. According to Haymes, commissioners were not even
aware of the background issues they were asked to vote on, on the Feb. 8
consent agenda. When the vote does take place, Griggs promised if final
revisions are "reasonable ... the commission will be reasonable, too."


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