Group seeks airport closure

Petition circulating to put issue before voters

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— A petition is circulating to place a question on November's ballot asking city voters to close Steamboat Springs Airport.

Local attorney Mark Freirich read the petition during Tuesday's Steamboat Springs City Council meeting. Freirich represents the community group that started the petition. The group has enlisted the aid of ProgressNow Action, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that lobbies for community issues across the state.

"There are people in Steamboat Springs who question the necessity of an airport in town, especially with other community projects that could be funded," ProgressNow technology manager Alan Franklin said.

Local members of the community group could not be reached for comment. No circulator was listed on a copy of the petition obtained by the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

The petition asks signers to support seven provisions, which direct city officials to "deactivate, discontinue use and abandon all aircraft operations" at the airport; to complete the deactivation no later than Sept. 30, 2007; to act with Routt County Commissioners to relocate "any necessary aircraft operations" to Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden; to convert the Steamboat airport property to a use "which would maximize the financial benefits" to the city; and declare the closure necessary for the "immediate preservation of public peace, health and safety."

City Clerk Julie Jordan said she was not aware of the petition until Tuesday's council meeting.

"I had not heard that the petition is coming forward," Jordan said Friday. "If it is indeed a valid initiative petition, the group would need to establish a petitioner's committee, which would file with my office. That has not happened yet."

Such a committee would need to act fast to get an initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot, Jordan said. According to the city's charter, an initiative petition requires signatures in an amount equal to at least 15 percent of the total registered voters in the previous election.

Jordan said 7,666 voters were registered in the previous election, meaning that supporters of the airport petition need to submit 1,150 signatures from registered Steamboat voters.

Jordan needs those signatures by early next week, she said.

"Time is running short -- it's a squeeze," Jordan said. "In order to make this year's ballot, City Council has to do two readings of the ordinance. The first reading would have to be Aug. 8, and the second reading would have to be Aug. 22."

Before those readings, Jordan would need to verify the validity of the signatures and deem the petition sufficient, a process for which the city charter allows 10 days after a petition is filed.

Eyes on the sky

Steamboat Springs Airport manager Mel Baker said the airport is home to 90 "based" aircraft, about half of which are stored in on-site hangars within city limits on Routt County Road 129. Thirty-three owners of second homes in Routt County also regularly use the airport, Baker said, as do 46 business owners and investors. That makes a total of 169 regular users of the airport, which Baker said conducts between 10,500 and 11,000 operations -- takeoffs and landings -- a year.

Critics of the airport have said the facility only services a small portion of the community at the expense of other possible uses.

"I disagree with that vehemently. This airport does not just support a couple of entities," pilot Don Heineman said Friday. Heineman is an instructor for the Steamboat Flying Club and founder of a local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a statewide search-and-rescue patrol for downed aircraft. He said the airport is a vital engine for the local economy.

"The people who fly into this airport eat at expensive restaurants and stay at the (Steamboat) Grand. They spend a lot of money in this town," Heineman said. "If you close this airport you are going to damage the economy of Steamboat, almost irreparably. A lot of people would close their businesses and leave the area."

Baker said a 2003 study by the Colorado Department of Transportation stated the airport generates more than $7.5 million for the local economy each year -- and the airport has grown since then, he said.

"That economic impact is greater now than it was in 2003," Baker said. "That's something the community should consider."

Rumors in the air

Questions about the best use for the airport property are nothing new in Steamboat.

"There's always been rumors floating around the airport that people want it closed," City Council President Pro-tem Susan Dellinger said. "It's kind of an interesting timing (for the petition)."

There also are rumors that the airport could be sold to developers who would significantly expand the airport.

Last month, developers representing Steamboat Springs Fly-in LLC told members of the Yampa Valley Airport Commission that they plan to address the Steamboat Springs City Council about buying the airport.

Developers Randall Reed and Richard Friedman outlined their plans for the airport. Those plans could include a $200 million development with 80 new homes and a 10-story condo/hotel building with a penthouse restaurant overlooking downtown. A new airport terminal also would be built, they said.

Dellinger said such a sale is speculation only.

"The purchase has never been formalized," she said Friday. "They're a ways out before they can even make an offer."

The council recently appointed a committee of local citizens to oversee an update of the airport's master plan and conduct a study of alternative uses for the airport, Dellinger said. That committee will meet for the first time Thursday in a forum open to the public.

"We encourage people who have something they want to talk about to come to those meetings and express their concerns," Dellinger said.

To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com.

The petition asking voters to close Steamboat Springs Airport has seven parts, including:

* The city of Steamboat Springs shall take all steps necessary to deactivate, discontinue use and abandon all aircraft operations conducted at the Steamboat Springs Airport

* The deactivation ... shall be in accordance with all applicable state and federal law

* The deactivation ... shall be accomplished no later than Sept. 30, 2007

* The city manager shall ... accomplish the (deactivation) within that time frame

* The city manager is authorized to enter discussions with the Routt County Commissioners to relocate any necessary aircraft operations to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden

* The city manager will ... convert the (airport) property to a use that would maximize the financial benefits to the city

* The City Council finds ... this ordinance is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety.

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