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Kalispell City Councilors Close in on Airport Decision
Work session focuses on feasibility of latest master plan recommendations
Jeff Walla, with Stelling Engineers, right, addresses the Kalispell City Council during a Kalispell Airport work session at the City Hall in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
The Kalispell City Council is approaching a final decision about the municipal airport’s future and on Monday examined the feasibility of upgrading the current site according to recommendations in the final master plan report.

“Getting around the fiscal ends of this is what gives me a headache,” Councilor Phil Guiffrida III said at a work session inside City Hall.

The latest master plan update for the 83-year-old Kalispell City Airport advises the city to invest in the current location with new facilities and upgrades that would safely and effectively accommodate current and future aviation demands.

The city council’s decision of whether to follow the latest master plan will likely happen on May 21. A formal public hearing is tentatively planned for May 7. The full updated master plan report can be found online at www.kalispell.com.

For more than two hours, councilors directed a range of questions about the finalized plan to Jeff Walla from Stelling Engineers, the firm that conducted the latest master plan study, and Gary Gates from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Will the FAA keep up its end of the bargain and reimburse an estimated $13.5 million of the $16 million it could cost to follow the recommended changes?

Does Kalispell have enough cash on hand to pay for initial costs before the FAA’s reimbursements?

How can the city help mitigate noise at the airport, one of the biggest complaints from residents?

In response to questions about the certainty of FAA support, Gates stopped short of making any guarantees. But he did say it was the FAA’s full intention to fulfill reimbursements, and added, “we have a pretty good history” of doing so. The city could be reimbursed for money it has already spent on the airport, including a majority of the $97,000 master plan update, Gates said.

The reimbursements are contingent on a couple of key stipulations, primarily that two radio towers would be removed as safety hazards and that the city successfully acquire 17 separate pieces of adjacent land.

Kalispell City Attorney Charles Harball said the city was not at a stage where it would discuss how those purchases might be structured.

Harball said the city could move forward with the land purchases with the help of a tax increment finance district that’s active near the airport and has funds available. That money could be used for initial costs before FAA reimbursements arrived, Harball said.

Councilor Tim Kluesner asked if the city or FAA had the authority to mitigate noise near the airport, specifically involving helicopters.

“One of the largest complaints we have at the moment is the noise,” he said.

Could the airport limit the hours that helicopters can fly? In short, the answer was no.

Gates said the FAA could not unduly restrict activity with something like a curfew at a public-use airport.

However, Fred Leistiko, the city airport manager, said the proposed heliport would improve noise issues because of its location on the south end of the facility.

“Having them way south will make a lot of difference, I think, as far as noise abatement is concerned,” Leistiko said. “They should never be north of the runway now, ever.”

A noise evaluation was completed during the master plan study and found most noise remained within the airport grounds. Gates said a previous environmental analysis that included a noise study found the same results.

The new master plan recommends changes to the airport that would upgrade the site to B-II standards, allowing for a wider variety of smaller aircraft. The changes could include widening and extending the runway and rotating it south and west and moving properties like Red Eagle Aviation to new buildings on the west side.

Gates said upgrading to B-II design standards would make the city airport eligible for $150,000 a year through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program.

The airport has been the focus of four different studies in the last 30 years. The city’s latest study, which began in September 2010, reached conclusions that were similar to those in a previous two-year master plan concluded in 1999.

“We’re at a point where (the FAA has) to determine whether or not there would be development in the near term,” Gates said. “We’re really at that point now.”

RELATED: Finalized Airport Study: Develop at Current Site
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