City council votes to examine airport issue again
The fate of the Blaine airport is uncertain – again.
In a regular meeting of the Blaine City Council, members voted 4-3 to request the Port of Bellingham to outline alternative uses to 40 acres currently occupied by the Blaine airport.
Council member Ken Ely, who proposed the idea, said although he had voted to keep the airport last October in what some call a swing vote, he has changed his mind since federal funding for the project has become less certain, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials say.
“As we’ve gone along, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with my conversations with the FAA people as far as the assurance of funds,” he said. “I apologize, but that’s where I’m at.”
He added that the port’s role as an economic development entity could help Blaine realize a feasible alternative to the $20-million airport expansion project that has been viewed with doubt from some community members since its beginning.
“I think the port’s the only entity that could, with all its experience, whip up more or less Betty Crocker fashion, a viable and believable proposal,” he said.
The decision will most likely postpone any progress of the airport master plan as the city is required to give the FAA notice of planned projects for the upcoming year by December 27 if they expect to receive federal funding from the 2007 legislative session, Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said.
Ely said he thinks a proposal by the port would require at least six months, which would require the city to wait until the 2008 legislative session to apply for funding.
The master plan includes a runway expansion and other upgrades to make Blaine airport more accessible to larger aircraft.
Blaine airport commission chair Doug Fenton said he thought Ely’s proposal was a good idea.
“I think that’s a good plan as long as the council is prepared to continue to fund it for another year and increase the size of loans to the general fund while you get another study done,” he said. “But if you wait past the 27th, you’ll wait another year and pay another year of interest on $400,000.”
He added that he was growing frustrated with the council and what seemed a lack of ability to make a decision and stick with it.
“I hoped, one way or another, that after the decision was made that everyone would get behind that decision,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening. You made a decision and it hasn’t really been a decision because you’ve been second-guessing it ever since.”
Ely said he was concerned about funding for the airport master plan after a November 27 conference call between city and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, who said the city of Blaine can expect little more than $150,000 from the agency’s non-primary entitlement grant program.
Wayde Bryant, manager of the FAA’s district office in Seattle, said out of $6 million in annual funding allotted by Congress for non-primary entitlement grants, the maximum funding available per airport is approximately $150,000, although the city of Blaine has accumulated $450,000 over the past three years that can be used for airport improvements.
Bryant said projects involving runway expansion, however, are given the highest priority for primary entitlements, which are available to all airports, regardless of size.
Acceptance of those grants would obligate the city to keep the airport open for a designated amount of time, he said.
Bryant had told city officials during the November conference call that federal money used for capital improvement projects would require the city of Blaine to keep the airport open to the public on a semi-regional basis for the next 20 years.
If the city uses the money to acquire land, the obligation would extend for as long as the property is used as an airport.
“I have no doubt (Doug) Fenton presents a logical and ordered plan and he can find the money to execute what he has in mind,” Ely said.
“But the stumbling block is the 38 articles of obligation we put ourselves in the position of accepting those grants. “The obligation makes me feel like we’re entering into a marriage where one partner has to be faithful and the other one does not.”
“To be fair, you have to take into perspective the side of the FAA,” he said. “You can’t just dip your toes in the water and say you want to build an airport and then tell them a year later that we’re going to close it.”
Fenton added that he remains confident he can garner the money necessary to proceed with the airport master plan by using non-primary entitlement grants in addition to two, $1 million in additional federal grants over the next two years.
“But if you want us to sit around and twiddle our thumbs for another year, I guess we can do that, too,” he said.
Council member Jason Overstreet received an applause from a vocal segment of the audience when he said the council has shown a lack of leadership.
He also disagreed with Fenton and accused him of “assailing” the city council with false figures in the airport master plan.
“I cannot believe the council was just assailed by a person who sold this plan lock, stock and bound, and in the bank,” he said. “The first bullet point Fenton listed in his proposal said these were known facts … I would be embarrassed if I were you.”
But when Ely asked Overstreet if he doesn’t like the port’s alternative if he would be willing to go ahead with Fenton’s funding plan, Overstreet said, “Absolutely not.”
“That thing needs to be closed,” he said. “No alternate plan B, no study. People are tired of this and I’m embarrassed ... I would hate to see this council, which has shown a total lack of leadership, put this off for another year and spend time and money just to end up in the same spot because someone says they don’t like the color scheme on the preliminary design guidelines. ”
In response, Ely said, “I resent the fact that you, Jason, keep saying the council has shown no leadership. Just because the leadership does not necessarily agree with you or move at your pace, sir, does not mean there is no leadership available or exercised.”
Fenton also disagreed. “Council member Liebert made a motion and if the rest of the council feels like I’ve let them down, I’d like to know because I’ll resign from this commission,” he said. “I’ve worked very hard on that master plan and relied on a consultant and a member of the FAA who told us that money was going to be there. I certainly didn’t lie to you. And I think you owe me an apology.”
Council members Ely, Wolf and Myers told Fenton they had not lost confidence in his work.
Overstreet later said that he owed Fenton a public apology.
The council voted to approve the motion with Overstreet, Onyon, Ely and Liebert in favor. Council members Myers, Wolf and Hawkins voted no.
The council will discuss the issue further at a special 5:30 p.m. meeting December 18 at city hall.