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An Airport Up in the Air: Runway, Role Debated in Lebanon

Lebanon — A majority of city councilors appear to be leaning away from backing a long-debated runway expansion at the municipal airport that would require a massive rock and soil removal project, according to recent interviews and statements made during past Council deliberations.

While a decision against extending the main runway would please opponents, it would also solidify the city’s noncompliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and risk financial assistance from Washington. The runway issue is also raising questions about the role and future of Lebanon’s airport, which has weighed on city officials for more than a decade.

The proposed airport runway expansion will come up later this month for its third City Council discussion since February. The FAA has called the expansion necessary for airport safety and has urged the city to move forward with the project, which would lengthen the southern end of the north-south runway by 1,000 feet and reduce the elevation of a nearby hill by 30 feet. The project would also require the removal of 800,000 cubic-yards of rock and soil during two-plus years of work, resulting in a huge daily influx of heavy truck traffic along Route 12A.

But most of the nine city councilors appear to be less than convinced of the project’s necessity.

“The real safety argument just hasn’t ever been perfectly articulated,” said Assistant Mayor Steve Wood. “I think the city, in all of its efforts, has got to be more reluctant to engage in irrevocable destruction without a clear reason why to do it, and the fact that a regulatory agency is telling us to do it really is a wash for me.”

Wood is among the six city councilors who have signaled they are opposed to expanding the runway, although how that might affect the type and size of aircraft that would be able to land has not yet been made clear. Lebanon Airport Manager Rick Dyment said that if the “no-build” option is chosen, trees would still need to be cleared and the hill to the south of the runway would “possibly” need to be lowered for aircraft safety.

In any case, the FAA is still requiring the airport to shorten the length of the east-west runway by 250 feet on each end.

In addition to Wood, city councilors Nicole Cormen, Erling Heistad, and Suzanne Prentiss all recently told the Valley News that they were leaning against lengthening the main runway. Councilman Bruce Bronner, who did not return messages from the Valley News, expressed support for the no-build option during the March 6 discussion of the project along with Councilwoman Carol Dustin, who declined to discuss the details of the project when reached by phone last month.

Lebanon Mayor Georgia Tuttle, who directed inquiries by the Valley News to the city manager’s office, spoke against the no-build option at that meeting. Councilwoman Karen Liot Hill recently said that she supports the runway expansion, which she said would help put the airport back on a sustainable financial footing.

Scott Pauls, who stepped down as assistant mayor last month, was an advocate of the no-build option. Councilor Heather Collier Vogel, who was recently elected for her first term, did not return messages seeking comment.

The city’s 5-percent share in the cost of the runway expansion project could run as high as $1.3 million, and the total cost could range anywhere from $13.3 million to $23.2 million. The FAA would pay 90 percent of the project, while the state of New Hampshire would pick up the tab for another 5 percent.

City councilors later this month are likely to weigh-in on a separate, but related, runway safety project that would clear 30 acres of trees along the southern portion of the east-west runway bordering Poverty Lane deemed to be “obstructions” for aircraft, but it is unknown how the majority of members would vote on the issue. At council meetings in February and March, abutters of the tree-clearing project packed City Hall and spoke out against the proposal in large numbers.

The council set aside funds for the tree-clearing when it approved the Capital Improvements Program in December, but several councilors have expressed frustration about not fully understanding the implications of that decision.

Prentiss, Liot Hill, Cormen, and Tuttle have all spoken in favor — if somewhat reluctantly — of the tree-clearing. Heistad, Wood, and Bronner have spoken against that project.

Dyment said that if councilors were to approve the tree-clearing project, but reject the runway expansion, the FAA could still decide to cut off federal funding for the airport, aside from any money to be used for safety-related projects. He noted that facility improvements do not qualify as safety-related, but he believes an argument could be made that repaving the runway — which is next slated for 2018 — is a safety necessity.

City Manager Greg Lewis has been in talks with FAA officials about a possible lighting alternative to tree clearing that would satisfy federal guidelines without reducing the tree buffer, but he said the details and financial components of such an alternative were still be worked out. The council, he said, would likely have further information on the lighting alternative at the April 17 discussion of the airport projects.

One Airport, Two Visions

When it comes to the future of the Lebanon airport, the City Council is fractured between two visions, with the divide hinging on the question of whether the facility can ever return to profitability, as was the case during its heyday in the 1990s.

Wood, the assistant mayor, argues that the airport should not be expected to generate surplus revenue for the city and should instead be viewed as a public service, akin to a fire department or an ambulance squad. But Liot Hill has argued that the airport can be put on a path that would enable it to once again be a revenue generator, as opposed to a drain on city funds.

She noted that during her eight years on the council, the airport’s annual deficits have shrunk from around $600,000 to less than $150,000.

“That is substantial progress, and we obviously have been closing the gap,” she said. “And it does appear that we will be able to close that gap, and close the deficit within the next couple of years.”

Liot Hill stressed that taxpayers have contributed more than $2 million to the airport in the last decade.

“I consider those subsidies a loan, and my intention is to see that loan paid back to the taxpayers,” she said in an interview last week.

Moreover, Liot Hill said the question has been framed as whether to expand the airport or leave it in its current state. The real issue, she said, is that the airport could begin to back slide on the progress it has made over the last several years if fewer planes use it, which would in turn lead to lower revenue taken in through refueling and landing fees.

She went on to say that an underpinning of airport economics has been absent throughout the discussion: that most airports are not self-sustaining as a result of their commercial operations. Rather, she contends, the budgets of most airports are buoyed by the development and leasing of airport-owned real estate.

“That is something that was well understood by decision-makers in the past and not something that is generally known to the public,” she said.

Due to the lack of an “airport master plan,” there are no concrete data detailing what impacts the various decisions could have on the fiscal state of the airport.

The lack of such details has been a source of frustration for councilors on both sides of the issue. Lewis, the city manager, said he has begun the process of starting such an overview, adding that it would take at least two years to complete.

Asked whether the FAA would wait that long for a master plan to be developed, Lewis said, “That issue is really in the FAA’s court.”

Cormen said that the “dream of the airport repaying everything that taxpayers have ever fronted (it), to me, that’s a very nice idea but that’s water under the bridge.”

She described the airport as a “piece of civil infrastructure,” and while she said she was open to ways the city could net more revenue from its operations, she nonetheless remains “very leery of the costs going forward.”

“It seems like we’re always behind, we’re never catching up,” she said. “So I see it as much more prudent to try and rein in our expenses and hold steady while we really look at the situation and really analyze it, and analyze it an objective way.”

Business Class
Or Coach Class?

Supporters of the project have stressed that the airport is a crucial component of the Upper Valley’s business community and that a downsizing of the airport runway could hurt local businesses. To that end, numerous city councilors have suggested that the business community should consider contributing additional funds to expand the runway.

“If the people flying those private jets want to support the Upper Valley, as they are asking the Upper Valley to support them, I would suggest they hop on a commercial plane,” said Heistada city councilor. “Fly up here, they can get here the same as everyone else.”

Cormen referred to a graph presented by airport officials that showed Lebanon’s airport as having the most business activity in the state, a finding that she questioned.

“I look at that, but then I notice that a lot of these jets are coming in on Fridays and leaving Sundays, and I’m like, ‘OK, how do they define business activity?’ ” she said. “Is this really business, or is this someone going to the spa in Quechee? We have borne a tremendous amount of the load for the region here and I think the airport in particular is a good example of that.”

Prentiss, too, hinted at the idea of spreading the cost of airport improvements over a wider base of taxpayers and airport users, describing herself as “not so sure” that the project would have a “true benefit for Lebanon.”

“I hate to be silo-related, but if everybody in the region wants it, then everybody has to help us do this,” she said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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