March 05, 2009
Airport plans upset officials
Some legislators caught off guard by plan to remove houses near runway
Highway Committee members and town officials are upset about the Cortland County Airport’s plan to eliminate obstructions by the runway.
The plan impacts 11 properties and calls for removing two neighboring houses, something Highway Committee members say they did not know was a component of the obstruction removal until recently.
Five property owners have offered to sell their properties to the county.
Highway Committee member Newell Willcox (R-Homer) said he has been on the Highway Committee since shortly after the passage of the Airport’s Master Plan in 2006 and never knew the plan could result in the demolition of houses.
When the plan passed, the airport was not in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines governing runway obstructions, starting the process that is currently under way to remove obstructions.
The obstruction removal plan the county is considering calls for removing houses that lie in runway protection zones, areas near the runway where it is deemed unsafe for structures to be.
Under the plan the county could purchase property easements to limit development or vegetation growth on a certain area of the land or buy the entire property from a willing owner. Property owners are currently awaiting the results of property assessments.
Willcox said he has seen the Master Plan, which does not state the removal of houses as the option to proceed with, and finds the document cumbersome and hard to understand.
“It is multi, multi pages and some of it’s up to interpretation and it ... is in almost glittering generalities of what they can do,” Willcox said.
“As the Master Plan started to grow or time ensued the fine print in the Master Plan started rearing its ugly head,” Willcox said.
“And some of the actions taken by the Highway Committee in OK’ing agendas they ... were blindsided,” Willcox said.
Willcox thinks the members of the Highway Committee should have been presented with a list of the pros and cons about the obstruction removal at the airport.
Another committee member, Thomas Hartnett (D-4th Ward) has been on the Highway Committee for three terms and said this year is the first he has heard of plans to acquire properties.
“I remember they were talking about taking obstructions down but homes were never discussed,” Hartnett said.
Hartnett said he is against homes being taken down and does not think that maintaining a recreational airport should require this action.
He thinks part of what has contributed to the general discontent about the situation is that new people are appointed to the Highway Committee every two years so sometimes people make uninformed decisions.
“We got new people coming on board who don’t know about it and have never been informed about it ... and you can’t make a good decision unless you are completely informed,” Hartnett said.
Deputy Highway Superintendent Bob Buerkle said it is the responsibility of committee members to stay on top of the legislation that was passed authorizing the next phase of work.
On July 26, 2007, the Legislature passed a resolution accepting grant money from the FAA for an environmental assessment report to be conducted on the impacts of obstruction removal.
Buerkle said prior to that the committee was told that property owners would be asked about how they would like to participate in the plans.
He agreed with Hartnett that when new committee members come on board it adds to the confusion.
Cortlandville Town Councilman Ron Rocco faults airport officials for not distributing to Cortlandville officials the environmental assessment report that the Binghamton-based transportation engineering firm McFarland Johnson conducted. The report was available at the Cortland Free Library and the County Clerk’s Office and open to public review until Jan. 22.
Legislature Chairman John Daniels is signing off on the final report, complete with public comment, and then will send it to Buerkle. Buerkle will submit the report to the FAA for review.
The FAA will decide whether to proceed with the obstruction mitigation and what funding would be available. The federal funding portion would be 95 percent and state and local share 2.5 percent each.
Depending on the federal determination about the plan, the Legislature will ultimately have to vote on whether to move forward with property acquisition.
But given the economic hardships, some legislators question the value of putting money into a recreational airport.
Buerkle could not provide a list of the businesses that use the airport since he said no surveys are done at the airport to determine that information. He mentioned McNeil Insurance Co., which has planes based there.
“People are in and out of the airport all the time,” Buerkle said.
Rocco does not think the airport is used frequently and wants to see proof that putting money into this airport is a benefit to the community but is still waiting for the facts that show this.
Rocco said he plans on attending future highway committee meetings to stay on top of decisions made there. He also plans on approaching the FAA about the airport’s policies.
“I want to know things are being done on the up and up there and I am looking for oversight on what’s going on over here at the Cortland County airport,” Rocco said.
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