The on-again, off-again community battle over whether or not to protect and expand the Hamilton airport gets new life every time county officials turn the slightest attention to the facility.
Last week the battle began anew when opponents of expansion took on the newly-created Hamilton Airport Authority.
Several months ago the Ravalli County Commissioners, realizing they had neither the expertise nor the inclination to manage an airport, created the airport authority to do it for them.
Opponents smelled a rat, and quickly gathered to mount a campaign designed to dissolve the authority.
In a growing community where change is both constant and anathema, the county’s desire to protect the county-owned airport from encroaching and incompatible residential and commercial growth is considered suspect.
The tangled web of suspicion goes back a few years when super-stockbroker Charles Schwab and his Hamilton partner Jim Schueler teamed up to develop Marcus Daly’s century-old Bitterroot Stock Farm, near the airport, into a second-home enclave for the very rich.
It was then the Federal Aviation Administration, loaded with cash and eager to spend it on small airports, turned its eye to the Hamilton airport.
Opponents saw a connection between the presumed need of the wealthy for a longer runway to better accommodate their Gulfstreams, and the FAA’s involvement.
Coincidence? Some people thought not.
Local business interests, including the county’s Economic Development Authority, saw the protection and expansion of the airport as an opportunity to lure high-tech entrepreneurs to an airport-side technical-industrial park.
But where the Chamber of Commerce sees economic potential, chief airport foe Earl Pollard and his neighbors see noise, pollution and all the things they fled to the Bitterroot to escape.
The airport authority is now trying to convince the board of commissioners to adopt a resolution dedicating the airport to the authority to manage as they see fit.
Pollard and the foes are collecting names for a 2002 ballot measure that seeks to dissolve the authority for at least two years. And they’re working on a ballot initiative that would prevent airport expansion “for as long as possible.”
The EDA’s technical-industrial park idea is a pipe dream, Pollard says, “wishful thinking.”
Besides, he adds, the airport’s “restrictive zone” has already been invaded by at least 300 homes, a new high school, a planned YMCA and pool, and other development.
Planning, he says, is too late for the Hamilton airport.
If he and his fellow airport opponents are successful, attempts to turn the Hamilton airport - the busiest general aviation airport in the state - into a bona fide, job-creating industrial park will likely be doomed.
And then? “Eventually,” Pollard says, “the airport will just evaporate.”