The Unfriendly Skies 

Debate takes wing over Hamilton airport expansion

For three years, a battle has raged in Ravalli County between those who want the Ravalli County Airport expanded and those who don’t.

More than a year ago, opponents thought they had the last word—and their way—when the Ravalli County Commissioners voted to add safety features required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the airport but not to extend the runway another 1,000 feet. At that time, the FAA went on record stating that runway extension was a local option and not their concern. The decision met with resounding approval from hundreds of valley residents who opposed the airport expansion.

But then the FAA did an about-face and added its weight to the proposal by issuing an ultimatum of its own: Without a formal plan showing possible future expansion of the runway, no more federal funds would be spent on the Hamilton airport. Now, the expansion plans, pushed by proponents of the project, are back on the table and the state’s busiest general aviation airport may become larger and busier in the near future.

The Ravalli County Airport provides services for private, public and commercial aircraft, including those of the U.S. Forest Service, Missoula LifeFlight, and a rapidly increasing number of other transient planes. More and more of those private planes are large, BII-class luxury jets and propeller aircraft whose pilots would like to have more room for takeoffs and landings. As Charles Schwab’s multi-million dollar Stock Farm development—with its luxury homes and world-class golf course—has grown on the foothills just a mile east of the airport, traffic among these larger luxury planes has increased. And it’s those airport users who want the runway expanded.

But more takeoffs and landings from larger—and louder—airplanes was one of the major reasons the airport expansion plans were so strongly opposed by others who live to the south and west of it. Hamilton’s city limits lie just a half-mile west.

At a series of public meetings while the airport layout plan was being reviewed, community members repeatedly spoke out about the noise, pollution, safety factors and an unwillingness to pay for any expansion with local tax dollars. About 90 percent of the expansion costs would be covered by funds from the FAA, leaving on only a 10 percent match required from the county. And the announcement from Ravalli County Commissioner Smut Warren that several unnamed individuals were willing to pony up the county’s 10 percent brought indignation, not acceptance, from those who didn’t want to see the airport grow.

Earl Pollard, an outspoken opponent of the proposed expansion said, “County taxpayers should not have to carry the burden of building and maintaining a larger airport just for the convenience of a very few. If there is a question of safety, they should land the larger planes in Missoula and drive down the valley.”

The FAA is requiring a new airstrip that would be parallel to the present one but further from the existing taxiway to allow more distance between larger planes. That work must be done even if the runway expansion doesn’t go through, if the county is to continue to receive federal funding for future airport projects.

A study conducted by the all-volunteer Airport Advisory Board and the engineering firm of Carter-Burgess looked at the possibility of a new runway diagonal to the existing one and an expansion of the runway length 1,000 feet on either end. But the diagonal was declared impossible for a number of reasons: wind patterns, the mountains, an eagle nest at one end and the historic Daly Mansion at the other. To expand to the south would have meant closing a county road and relocating traffic on Golf Course Road, plus the airstrip would have bisected a large portion of a nearby ranch. Northern expansion appeared to be blocked by a high ridge on adjoining property owned by local businessman Harold Mildenberger. Now, discussions have begun to purchase enough land for the landing strip expansion and to use the gravel from the ridge to provide material for county roads.

Recently Gov. Marc Racicot flew into the Hamilton airport and his pilot expressed concerns about the shortness of the runway for the size of the governor’s plane. And Ravalli County Commissioner Smut Warren agrees. A strong proponent of airport expansion, Warren said, “We have to do something out there before someone gets killed.”

Within a week of the governor’s local flight, the Ravalli County Commissioners traveled to Helena for a meeting with FAA officials and an agreement was hammered out that keeps federal funds coming and airport expansion options viable. Under terms of the agreement, federal funds will continue to be made available if the county commissioners:

• Protect the long-term viability of the airport by either purchasing surrounding property or purchasing an easement.

• Comply with state law by zoning the airport and property surrounding it to ensure future compatible land uses. One major area of concern about noise, for example, is that the new Hamilton High School, now under construction, is less than a quarter-mile from the airport.

• Adopt structure height restrictions around the airport to reduce potential problems and ensure pilot safety.

The final reports for the new runway will be presented to the commissioners before the end of the year. Reconstruction work could begin next year. Whether that work includes another 1,000 feet will, no doubt, be a matter of considerable heated debate in the coming months.

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