Steamboat Springs A Federal Aviation Administration district manager sent city officials a sternly worded letter, stating clearly that the FAA would frown upon any effort to close the Steamboat Springs Airport.
Sent to City Manager Alan Lanning, the letter was in response to a failed petition that sought to ask local voters whether to close the airport. The letter "reminded" Lanning and members of the Steamboat Springs City Council of financial obligations the city has to the FAA.
"Since 1985, the city has entered into agreements with the FAA for the acceptance of federal funds for airport development projects and land acquisition under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP)," Craig Sparks, manager of the FAA's Denver Airports District Office, wrote. "In accepting over $9.53 million in AIP funds, the city has agreed to specific federal obligations, including a commitment to keep the airport open and make it available for public use as an airport.
"Since the city acquired lands with AIP funds, this obligation runs in perpetuity. Thus the city may not close the airport without FAA's consent and without a formal release of the city from the (obligations)."
At a July 18 council meeting, local attorney Mark Freirich read a petition sponsored by a community group seeking to place an issue on the Nov. 7 ballot, asking Steamboat voters whether to close the airport. The issue will not be on the ballot because the community group did not submit an adequate number of petition signatures to City Clerk Julie Jordan before last month's deadline.
Debates about the best use of the 255-acre airport site have gone on for years. In March, the City Council appointed a seven-member Steamboat Springs Airport Steering Committee to coordinate a study and update of the airport's master plan. The council has also discussed a feasibility study of alternate uses - such as affordable housing - for the airport site on Routt County Road 129.
Council President Pro-tem Susan Dellinger said the process leading to those studies should continue, regardless of the FAA's position.
"The FAA's job is to promote general aviation - I wouldn't expect them to say anything else," Dellinger said Monday. "But if we don't find out what the cost would be, and what changes in revenue would result from changing (the use of airport land), I think the question will still be out there. I would rather see the answer - the FAA is just one component of the overall (picture)."
Council President Ken Brenner said closing the airport should not be considered until the studies are completed.
"We're in the middle of a process," Brenner said. "I think closing the airport through an initiative would be premature - I'm kind of glad that didn't happen."
Lanning took a more sobering tone regarding the letter's impact.
"I think the letter makes it very clear to us that closing an airport is very difficult, and that the city has a number of grants that would have to be dealt with, over the course of years, if closure were to be considered," Lanning said. "I think the discussion might be, 'Do we continue doing the master plan and alternative study?'"
In the letter, Sparks cited aircraft operation statistics that he said show "a healthy activity level" and "continued benefit to civil aviation" at the airport.
"It is unlikely the FAA would find any justification for a release of Steamboat Springs Airport for closure," Sparks wrote.
The steering committee meets Thursday. The City Council meets tonight, for the first time since receiving copies of the letter from Lanning.
"I'm assuming they'll discuss it," Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord said.