Upgrade and Expand, or Curb the Growth at the Kalispell City Airport?

Kalispell is contemplating a decision years in the making.

The city council is weighing whether or not to accept Federal Aviation Administration funding and upgrade the city airport. Proponents say the airport is an asset to the community, bringing in business and economic opportunity. Those opposed say upgrades would bring in larger, louder planes and increased danger for surrounding neighborhoods. A plane crashed into a home injuring those on board in February, and another crashed into a home in 2004, killing the two people on board.

Doing nothing is an option some opponents to upgrading the airport support. By doing nothing and allowing leases to expire they see the city airport fading over time and being available for some other use like housing or parks.

Monday night the Kalispell City Council listened as people weighed in for and against using federal funds to upgrade the city airport. About a month ago an engineering report released to the public analyzed various options for the airport including closing and relocating, doing nothing, or moving forward with a project funded through the FAA to remove radio towers in the flight path south of town, move the runway south, and purchase property surrounding the runway.

“I read through their report to see if I could understand the economic basis for going through with the airport, and it just didn’t seem to make much sense to me,” said Kalispell resident Russell Meduna. He said his background is in engineering, and he disagrees with the reports final recommendation to take the funding and upgrade, “the class of plane that they want to bring in to this airport is a class of plane that would be better suited, in my opinion, to Glacier International Airport.”

Meduna says he’s also concerned about the city ability to come up with the necessary matching funds, larger planes landing, and the increased noise and safety concerns of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The option of the jet center at Glacier International Airport is one echoed by many opposing the upgrade, “let those people handle the more commercial larger planes, and let this be a very small airport. I’m not proposing shutting it down. I don’t live that far from it, I don’t consider it a terribly bad neighbor, but I might if it turns into Love Field in Dallas, or something where you got a lot of larger planes flying,” Meduna said.

Some who spoke against the upgrade say it used to sit on the outskirts of town. Now, neighborhoods have grown up around it, and it’s no longer the right space for planes to be flying over.

Those for the upgrade say the changes would address safety concerns by moving the runway south about 1-thousand-feet and shifting the direction, changing pilots approach for landings.

Supporters say the airport pays for itself, with hangar owners paying to use the airport, and conducting business through it.

Pilot Chuck Jarecki has a hangar at the Polson airport and has also done some flight training in Kalispell.

“I have a lot of friends who come from all over the country to go camping, airplane camping in the airstrips up near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and they use the Kalispell Airport as a place to use groceries, and get some more fuel, eat a meal in a restaurant, the general services that you would like to have,” Jarecki said.

Jarecki represents the Recreational Aviation Foundation. He says people have the wrong idea about taxpayers footing the bill because these FAA funds come from pilots who pay cents on the gallon to the FAA when they buy fuel, and pay other costs involved with flying. He says about 20-years-ago Polson accepted federal funds to upgrade its facility, “literally tore the old runway out, and rebuilt the new runway with improved drainage system, new taxiways, new lighting, new windsocks, extra taxiway to access more hangar sites, and so it definitely made a safer, more user friendly airport,” Jarecki said.

Jarecki said the Polson airport is in a more rural area than the Kalispell airport, but pilots fly right over town for their landing approach.

Proponents say upgrading the airport will not only make it safer, but also open the door to more economic opportunity with new business flying in.

Those opposed worry about opening the door to longer operating hours, less city control, as well as the larger planes by accepting the federal funds.

The city would have to meet F-A-A standards by accepting the money, and regulations it imposed could not be more restrictive than federal guidelines.

The city is accepting comment until May 21st and is scheduled to discuss and vote on the issue during that evenings meeting.

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