HAMILTON — On the heels of a favorable ruling in a federal appeals court, Ravalli County is working to expedite the purchase of land needed to build a 5,200-foot runway at the Ravalli County Airport in Hamilton.
Earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a petition asking for a review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to approve a runway expansion project.
The appellate court said the FAA was reasonable when it articulated the project’s purpose and need while considering an appropriate range of alternatives. The agency’s decision that the airport required a 5,200-foot runway was based on the fact that it already sees use by some larger airplanes, including Forest Service air tankers used for firefighting.
In 2011, two aircraft were forced to release fire retardant just prior to takeoff in order to clear a hill at the end of the runway. In both cases, the airplanes were already taking off with about 20 percent less retardant than their full capacity of 800 gallons.
“The FAA has a statutory mandate to promote ‘the safe operation of the airport and airway system’ and efficient transportation,” the appellate court’s ruling read. “Providing adequate runway length furthers both of those goals by giving pilots higher safety margins and allowing aircraft to fly at full capacity.”
The group Informing Citizens Against Airport Runway Expansion filed the appeal in 2017 after the FAA released its final environmental analysis and record of decision on the longer runway.
The group was concerned over potential impacts to property values of nearby neighborhoods and overall costs of the project.
Ravalli County Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said the county is currently in negotiations with the Mildenberger family to acquire about 120 acres east and north of the current airport that would allow for construction of the new, longer runway.
Burrows said the county is hoping to expedite that process in order to potentially secure additional federal funding for the project.
Under the current proposal, Burrows said the county is expected to pay 10 percent of the costs of a project that could run as high as $20 million. Some of those matching funds could come from a Montana Aeronautics Grant and from a private foundation.
The FAA was recently allotted several billion dollars that could be used to pay those matching costs for airport projects, Burrows said.
Jack Tuholske, a Missoula attorney representing ICAARE, said a decision on the group’s next move following the appellate court’s decision won’t happen until after the first of the year. The group could ask for another hearing before the appeals court or take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I am very disappointed in the 9th Circuit Court opinion,” Tuholske said. “I believe they glossed over the fundamental issues … We will sit down and talk about how to proceed.”
ICAARE has a number of concerns about the proposal, including the potential impacts to property values from noise and air pollution by making the runway long enough to accommodate small jets.
“They are creating a small jetport,” Tuholske said. “They will be able to fly jets into the airport in close proximity to nearby neighborhoods. That will impact property values.”
Tuholske said the FAA used fuel logs to determine the amount of traffic the airport handles and to make projections for air traffic in the future.
“The fuel logs that were provided were confusing,” he said. “We can’t make any sense out of them.”
The 9th Circuit ruled the FAA acted within its discretion and used its technical expertise in using fuel sales to estimate annual operations at the airport.
Burrows said a negotiator has been hired to work toward the purchase of the land needed for the expansion project. The first formal negotiation occurred about six weeks ago. The landowner was presented with an appraisal of the property.
“That’s basically the first step,” Burrows said. “From there, it will go back and forth … The only time frame that we’re working under at this point is the sooner we can acquire the land, the better our chances in getting the supplemental funding.”