Airport petition won’t fly, says city attorney
While Blaine city council is sorting through names for a committee to investigate the economic value of possible alternative uses for the airport, a group of citizens calling themselves “Revitalize Blaine Now” wants to vote first and talk later.
“We are here with the signatures of all these (people) representing almost 20 percent of the citizens of Blaine to merely ask you to put the issue before the voters one more time,” said former city council member Frank Bresnan, the group’s secretary, as he handed over more than 500 signatures on a petition to “abolish the Blaine municipal airport.” The September 12 council meeting was long and crowded, with airport opponents asking for a vote and airport supporters asking for cool heads.
While Bresnan claimed his group was “not requesting the airport be closed, we simply want it put before the voters,” he expressed strong opposition to the facility and the recently developed master plan that proposes to expand it. “We collectively do not believe the airport is the highest and best use of this property,” he told council members. Bresnan said that the airport as it exists and even with the growth projected under the master plan would serve mostly small private planes. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re going to get all kinds of commercial aircraft,” he said, “and that’s valuable real estate.”
Blaine airport commission chairman Doug Fenton said the time for a vote, if there needed to be one, was after some study of the alternatives and their relative value to the city. “Until you have an idea what you want to do besides operate aircraft, this is premature,” he said. Fenton also said council and Blaine citizens needed to consider the consequence of closing the 58-year-old airport. “If you close the airport you’ll be hit with a liability suit,” that could run in the millions, he said, from displaced airport leaseholders.
One of those leaseholders, Jeff Robinson, said there were still 26 years left on a 30-year lease for airport property on which he has spent over half a million dollars to build a hangar. “If you suddenly close the airport you are taking away our property rights,” he said, speaking on behalf of the Blaine Airport Condominium Hangar Association. “We’re invested in the city and have the right to enjoy it legally.” There is legal precedent to support the rights of leaseholders to recoup their investment in the airport, including a 1982 Superior Court decision that found the city would be responsible for relocation costs and reimbursement for leasehold improvements and profits lost should the airport be phased out.
Nancy Hobberlin accused those gathering signatures for the petition of distributing “false and emotionally loaded information,” pointing specifically to a woman gathering signatures outside the post office Hobberlin claims told her city dollars would be better spent on sewers and streets than on an airport used by few. “The operation of Blaine airport is self supporting,” she said, and the approximately $300,000 the city has loaned to the airport fund so far this year has been “capital funds.” The money was used to acquire land and remove trees at the end of the runway, and pay legal bills associated with their removal, according to city manager Gary Tomsic.
Hobberlin added that federal money to expand the airport was coming from a fund derived from taxes on aviation fuel and airline ticket sales. The Blaine master plan now under review by the FAA proposes and $16.5 million expansion, and the FAA would provide 95 percent of the funding with the state and the city covering the remaining five percent.
Regardless of arguments on either side of the airport issue, city attorney Jon Sitkin thinks it unlikely the question will be on the fall ballot because of procedural and legal issues.
“This issue rests with the city council solely,” Sitkin said. “This is to be decided by the city council, not the electorate.” In a September 8 memo to city council members Sitkin stated the “power of initiative may not be used to abolish the Blaine airport,” because state laws limit what matters can be addressed through the initiative process, and the authority to operate the airport, granted to the city council by the state, falls outside those limits.
Sitkin also said the petition had a procedural defect in that it did not include which city ordinances it intended to modify, or include a replacement ordinance. These legal defects would “likely result in the initiative being barred from being placed on the November ballot,” Sitkin concluded. He did, however, say the city council had the option of putting the airport question before voters as an advisory ballot. “An advisory vote doesn’t have a legal effect,” he said.
Bresnan said his group was not interested in an advisory ballot, and that they would challenge the city attorney’s contention that their proposed ballot measure had legal defects. “This issue is written the same way it was years ago,” he said. Voters have been asked to determine the fate of the airport three times since 1978. “I love a challenge,” Bresnan said. “I’d love to spend a few tens of thousands to prove him wrong.”
City council member Bonnie Onyon suggested the issue needed less rhetoric and more analysis. “I’m not opposed to an advisory vote but I am opposed to it before we have some intelligent study,” she said. “It needs to get out of the realm of emotion.”
Almost overshadowed by the petition, city council moved forward with mayor John Liebert proposal to form a committee investigating alternatives to using the land as an airport, each choosing 12 names from a list of 26 to be merged by the city clerk in determining final committee membership.
Liebert also asked the airport commission to prepare information about the economic benefits of an expanded airport, a study the FAA declined to fund as part of the master plan.
The petition will now be transmitted to county auditor Shirley Forslof who will determine if it has enough valid signatures and meets legal requirements to be on the November ballot.