Runaway Runway 

How Hamilton’s airport controversy really took off

The ferocious debate swirling around the Hamilton airport is rooted in the deeper, more political issue of job creation that so often bedevils small-town Montana these days. On one side of the debate are those who support hopeful sounding but vaguely worded “economic development” ideas. On the other are the lifestylists, the defenders of the status quo, whose rallying cry is “if we don’t build it they won’t come.” And of course, the whole argument is fueled by juicy conspiracy theories without which the public debate would be incomplete.

The controversy surrounding the 53-year-old Hamilton airport has several facets, but it’s largely settled on the creation of the Ravalli County Airport Authority. The Authority was established last summer by the Board of County Commissioners after the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to cut its funding if the county failed to plan for future airport improvements.

The Airport Authority’s job was to take over management of the airport because the commissioners, overburdened by the myriad governmental duties associated with a rapidly growing county, lacked the time and expertise to manage it themselves.

Then a group called ICAARE, for Informing Citizens About Airport Runway Expansion, quickly formed in response. They claim that the Airport Authority has too much autonomy and can impose additional taxes to operate the county-owned airport without voter approval. They fear that the Authority has as its goal the extension of the 4,200-foot runway by another 1,000 feet. That, they say, will result in many more noisy machines clogging the quiet skies over the Bitterroot, threatening the peace and safety of those below. They are now circulating a petition to disband the Airport Authority.

Mike McKee is the Authority’s chairman. He and other business-minded Bitterrooters believe the airport should be upgraded and, someday, expanded to include a technological business park to provide economic stimulus, and an improved helipad for Forest Service operations. The ICAARE criticisms directed at the Airport Authority are disingenuous and off the mark, he says.

“It’s funny they’re not hitting on the real issues,” McKee notes. ICAARE, he says, is made up of the I’ve-got-mine-so-let’s-lock-the-gates crowd. “Now that they’ve bought their land in the vicinity of the airport they don’t want any planes flying overhead. That’s the issue they don’t want to talk about.”

What ICAARE has been talking about, in letters to the editor and opinion pieces, is the fear that a longer runway will mean DC-9 cargo jets and large commercial aircraft landing in Hamilton. The FAA says that commercial jetliners and other large aircraft cannot land at Hamilton, regardless of the length of the runway, because the Bitterroot Valley is simply too narrow for large aircraft.

Equally alarming to some is the fear that a beefed-up airport will cause an increase in the number of corporate jets owned by the last class of people in America that it’s still OK to hate: the wealthy.

In that sense, says Ravalli County Commissioner Alan Thompson, the current debate over the Hamilton airport is just a matter of bad timing.

In 1996 the county reviewed its 20-year airport plan, as required by the FAA. An advisory committee at the time recommended that the runway be extended another 1,000 feet to the south to improve safety. That suggestion was publicly unpopular and was ultimately rejected by the board. Around the same time, however, San Francisco investment banker Charles Schwab and his partners began developing the century-old Bitterroot Stock Farm into an exclusive gated enclave for the super-rich. When the first 10,000-square-foot homes began sprouting on the old Stock Farm, the wagging tongues began promoting the idea that the runway extension plan was Schwab’s idea. With the airport a stone’s throw from the Stock Farm, some Bitterrooters insisted that Schwab and his pals were pushing for a longer runway to better accommodate their jets. Otherwise, people sneered, the jet-set crowd, who were just launching their invasion of the Bitterroot Valley, would be inconvenienced by having to fly their big planes into Missoula, forcing them to drive to Hamilton.

The county commissioners have denied this rumor, but did confirm that Schwab’s agent, as well as another wealthy, part-time Bitterrooter, offered to pay the county’s matching share of the cost of extending the runway. But, they point out, those offers came after the advisory committee suggested the runway extension, not before. And in any case, it’s become a moot point.

The political had become the personal, and regardless of how often the story was debunked, it refused to die. “It caused some problems because of the time frame it happened in,” Thompson says.

Now McKee is facing a second whisper campaign. His wife Jeannette, a former legislator from Hamilton, is involved in various civic affairs, including a plan to transform the hundred-year-old Daly Mansion into an art gallery. The Daly Mansion, like Schwab’s Stock Farm development, lies near the Hamilton airport. Conspiracy theorists, McKee says, have been suggesting that the McKees are in cahoots with Schwab and his rich friends to expand the airport, making it easier for the well-heeled to fly directly into Hamilton to view an art gallery that hasn’t yet been created.

It’s not true, McKee says, but it diverts attention from the business at hand. “These people,” he says of the airport’s critics, “are absolutely shit-faced terrified that [changes] are going to happen.”

McKee won’t make any predictions about whether the effort to disband the Authority will succeed. So for now, he says, it will move forward with its federal grant application for funds to buy buffer-zone land surrounding the airport.

If the Authority is disbanded, he says, the Hamilton airport will continue to suffer from official neglect. Without a strong management team to protect it, he says, homes and businesses will continue to creep toward the airport and will eventually run it out of town. And with no suitable land on which to relocate, the busiest general aviation airport in the state could close forever.

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