Kalispell hands over city airport to independent group

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The Kalispell City Council voted Monday night to lease the 71-acre municipal airport property to an independent group of users. The move releases the city from the financial obligations of maintenance and also negates any possibility of the airport disappearing from town in the near future.

The airport lease hands over administrative power, financial liability and $166,000 in the city’s Airport Enterprise Fund to the user group for an initial 20-year lease. No money, aside from the assets in the Airport Enterprise Funds, would change hands as a result of the lease, said City Manager Doug Russell.

So long as the council deems the user group has kept up with maintenance and capital improvements included in the airport’s master plan, the lease will automatically be renewed for an additional 10 years, Russell said Monday. The council would then have the discretion to extend the lease for an additional 10 years, for a total of 40 years and leaving the operations decisions and costs out of city hands until 2057.

“The value to the city is they are taking over the ongoing maintenance and financial responsibility,” Russell said.

The projects the user group is expected to undertake in the initial 20-year period include making repairs to the taxiway, widening one taxiway by about 4 feet for safety purposes, improvements to airplane traffic flow and parking in the facility and making additional space to install more hangars and other buildings that could help the airport turn more of a profit.

The group will also have the option to use tax-increment financing from the city to complete some of the proposed work. The financing has to be used on new projects or capital improvements rather than maintenance, Russell said at the meeting.

Existing leases the city has with airport hangars will be canceled and renegotiated with the user group taking over operations.

The municipal airport has long been a subject of debate for the city, and this proposal was discussed on three previous council working sessions. Going forward, there was controversy around spending large amounts of public money on a facility that few residents ever interacted with.

Closing the airport would have created mountains of bills from buying out hangar lease agreements and removing the buildings and landing strips so the property could be repurposed. The airport also faced mounting maintenance backlogs and looming capital improvement plans.

When the airport was constructed 88 years ago, it was south of town. As Kalispell continued to grow and expand, the airport was enveloped in residential and commercial development. Today, the airport is nestled between the Hilton Garden Inn, Rosauers grocery store, MacKenzie River Pizza Co., Murdoch’s ranch supply store and the municipal wastewater treatment plant. It is also surrounded by rapidly expanding residential areas.

In June, the city broke ground on a new elementary school on Airport Road, not far away from the newly leased facility.

One member of the public expressed that they were concerned with the proximity of the airport to the school, and cited it as one reason they would rather see the airport shut down and removed. She worried landing planes could potentially collide with a school full of children.

Council members responded by noting the research they had undertaken made them realize that flying a plane was safer than driving a car, and they thought any concerns of crashes in densely populated residential areas were overblown.

Another member of the public said she lived beneath the flight path and the noise was abhorrent. She felt it lowered her property value and quality of life, and asked the council write into the lease prohibitions on airplanes of certain sizes, specifically a B-2, which she said had no place at a small, municipal airport.

Council members responded that restrictions on certain types of planes would seem arbitrary, and they were unwilling to write it into the lease. They said the size of planes able to use the airport was naturally limited by the length of the runway, which currently sits at 3,600 feet with little room for extension.

The user group now has 120 days to prepare for the transition, otherwise the lease lapses, according to a report from Russell. The City Manager’s office recommended the approval of the lease.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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