At Airport, City Defies Regulators

West Lebanon — The defeat of a plan to extend the primary runway at Lebanon Municipal Airport signals a philosophical shift for those City Council members who say they are thinking more critically about air travel in the Upper Valley.

At the same time, the decision to rebuff federal regulators and chart a different path forward for the airport has left other council members concerned about the potential financial burden that could fall to Lebanon taxpayers.

Assistant Mayor Steve Wood characterized the vote earlier this week in favor of an alternative that would make minor adjustments to air traffic at the airport as the council sending a message that it supports the airport, “but not blindly.”

“The evidence that this is a real representative government that is really not inclined to be batted around by a regulatory agency ... was overwhelmingly clear (Wednesday) night,” said Wood.

The plan approved by the council actually will slightly shorten the runway. The Federal Aviation Administration had sought a $20 million runway expansion, to which the city would have expected to contribute about $1 million.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, who described the vote as “extremely risky,” said that it could be a “tremendous obstacle” for the city and have “potentially disastrous consequences for the taxpayers of Lebanon.”

Liot Hill’s most immediate concern, she said, is what could happen next, as the FAA determines how to proceed with the airport.

“The FAA has made it clear that we are going to need to make some modifications, and by choosing that option last night, the city has forgone federal assistance from the FAA,” said Liot Hill. “My hope is that we can negotiate with them ... and share some of the responsibilities for whatever the bare minimum is. That’s our job moving forward, to make the best of it.”

The voting on Wednesday night split the Council 5-3, with Liot Hill joined by Mayor Georgia Tuttle and City Councilor Heather Collier Vogel. Tuttle did not return messages seeking comment yesterday, and Collier Vogel declined to comment. Along with Wood, city councilors Bruce Bronner, Nicole Cormen, Carol Dustin, and Erling Heistad backed the alternative. City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss was not present at the meeting.

An FAA spokesperson said that the Lebanon airport is in compliance with federal aviation regulations, and that the runway project only addressed the need for improved runway safety areas, an effort which began in 2007. The spokesperson said that the FAA did not consider the project a runway expansion.

The Lebanon airport typically receives about $1 million annually in federal funding, while all other New Hampshire airports typically receive $150,000, with the exception of Manchester Boston Regional Airport.

In 2012, Manchester Boston Regional Airport received $3.8 million to rehabilitate the area where airplanes are parked, refueled, and boarded; $1.1 million to acquire snow removal equipment; $630,000 for a terminal heating and cooling system; and nearly $400,000 for a runway project to remove obstructions and improve lighting.

The FAA is working on three other runway safety improvement projects in New England in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Rutland, Vt. The cost of the projects can run as high as $30 million at major commercial airports. Last year, Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, which is categorized by the FAA as a “commercial service” airport similar to Lebanon Municipal Airport, received more than $558,00 to extend runway safety areas for two separate runways, along with $507,402 to light obstructions.

The FAA spokesperson said that all airports are expected to be self-sustaining, and that federal funding goes toward safety projects, environmental studies and capital improvements projects, not general airport operations. He said that the “Airport Improvement Program,” is not affected by the sequester, a series of cuts initiated by lawmakers in Washington.

City Manager Greg Lewis said that the FAA will have to determine whether it immediately engages in evaluating the city’s decision to move forward with minor improvements chosen by the council on Wednesday.

Lewis added that regulators could pull back and let the city compile its “Airport Master Plan,” which would be a comprehensive document borne out of community input and would outline the vision for its airport over the next 20 years.

“I think they understand why I think the master plan is really important, so I think we’ll get a fair airing on their part with the whole idea of how it’s better to have a community come together and reach a consensus in a real positive and proactive way, rather than to necessarily focus on a specific issue immediately,” said Lewis.

In many ways, Lewis explained, Lebanon residents were viewing the airport through the prism of the runway project, and the information gathered for that particular issue. A more comprehensive plan would offer city officials a chance to better develop better data for airport decisions moving forward. The master plan would include analyses of safety, the environment, airport operations, nearby neighborhood impacts, and the entire transportation network in the region, as well as internal and external economic studies.

“That really adds value when we get into the decision-making,” said Lewis.

As for 30 acres of tree-clearing along Poverty Lane approved by the council in December, Lewis said the trees were unlikely to come down until next winter.

Liot Hill expressed strong support for a master plan, but said that she had all the information she needed to vote on Wednesday. Having argued in the past that lengthening the north-south runway at the airport would prevent a loss of revenue, Liot Hill added that while the decision will have “financial consequences,” there isn’t a good sense yet of what those will ultimately look like.

“I think the best that we can do, and what we need to do, is make sure that the financial consequences end up being as small and as minimal as possible,” she said.

Wood said that the underlying issue with the airport debate was that the regulatory agency never demonstrated why the project was necessary for airport safety, either verbally or through data. He said that the FAA was telling the city to go forward with the project, “because we said so,” which he compared to a bully in a bar.

“If the guy says, when I finish this beer I’m going to hit you with this bottle, you should just sit there and stare at him, and make him think that maybe that’s not a good idea,” said Wood. “And I think we did do that.”

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

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, April 23 edition of the Valley News:

It would cost up to $100,000 to do a study of risk and safety issues at the Lebanon Municipal Airport, and Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill argued that lengthening the north-south runway at the airport would prevent a loss of revenue. An article in Thursday's Valley News incorrectly described the nature of the study, and an article the next day inaccurately characterized Liot Hill's argument.

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