Heber Valley Airport Master Plan
Our “fireside chat” on 10/17 was a wonderful meeting that lasted nearly five hours. This was a time for the public to hear from our panel of experts and ask important questions. While a lot of this was information we have been hearing from our experts and legal representation all along, it was an important opportunity for citizens to learn more and express their own views.
Tuesday’s council meeting also presented an opportunity to focus largely on the task at hand. The council chambers at City Hall were filled to capacity with people who were interested in hearing what the council’s decision would be as far as moving forward with the master planning process. The presentation also included time for lawyers to speak about settling ongoing litigation with OK3 Air, the fixed-base operator (FBO) at the airport. This is a major win for all involved. It truly paves the way for the city and OK3 Air to move forward as partners as we seek to provide a safe and desirable airport.
As to be expected, emotions are always running high when it comes to this topic. There are individuals who have their homes and farms just off the runway to the west. These people are affected by jet traffic and helicopters practicing take-offs and landings every day. There are others living in the flight path who endure a constant stream of jets, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. The high school and middle school also fall within the flight path, leading to safety concerns for some of our local parents. Even in the midst of this heightened tension, we were able to discuss our individual opinions and acknowledge how difficult it is to come to the right decision.
When it comes to these divisive topics, we as members of the council get pretty beat up. Our integrity is questioned, our motives are doubted, and our intentions are made cynical. I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty: We are all acting and voting with 100% of the correct information. We have sat through hours of meetings concerning the airport. In fact, one of the first things I had to do when I was elected was attend a joint meeting with our lawyers to be brought up to speed on the lawsuit. I had no idea how extensive the lawsuit has been as it pertains to time and resources. I don’t like when the city is in an adversarial relationship with any business person trying to make their living in Heber City, especially those who have legal contracts. We as a city must uphold our part of the contract and respect the rule of law. Having a vendetta towards any individual, especially in business, does not lead to good outcomes for anyone.
Many have expressed concern over the fact that this settlement includes a 50 year lease for the FBO at the airport. Others have also stated that we are giving too much to the FBO operator. I would argue that the city is not paying any cash to settle the lawsuit or potential lawsuits with the FBO. This extension of contract in lieu of cash benefits both the city and the operator. In the end, most settlements need to not only benefit both parties but also be a little difficult for each party to come to terms with. That makes for a good settlement. It is not easy to extend the contract that long, but when you consider that the airport needs an FBO, that changes the perspective a little bit. The FBO has to pay the city police rate on the ground they occupy. Plus, there is a lease for the hangar spaces constructed by the FBO with their own funding. There is even a lease for the apron space where airplanes can park. Extending this lease for 50 years is a contractual matter that actually puts the city in a good position. We know the city will receive income based on those lease rates and fuel flowage fees for as long as the term of the lease. This is a huge benefit!
It’s also worth noting that we have listened to the pilots of smaller planes in the area who are still a large part of the population at the airport. They have asked if there is any way to have an FBO focused on general aviation. As part of the airport layout plan, the current FBO operator has agreed to pursue an option for a second FBO at the airport. Although there is still work to do on the airport layout plan, we anticipate that this small GA FBO will be located on the eastern side of the airport, closer to Heber City. This is another major win for everyone involved.
Since I was elected, I have always felt it was a priority to dive into the airport topic and explore the many facets of what it all means. I stood my ground on wanting to make sure that we are following the federal guidelines for safety of an airport in the United States. According to the FAA, our current airport is a Class II Non-Compliant Airport. This designation is not one that we can choose. The only thing that determines this designation is which airplanes, also known as the critical aircraft, are using the Heber Valley Airport.
We currently have more than 1,200 CII aircraft landing at the Heber Valley Airport every year. This is very important to understand. Whether or not we upgrade the airport, that number will be 1,600 in 20 years. Why is that important? There is no way to limit who lands at the Heber Valley Airport. When a pilot is coming into the airport to land, all they look at is runway length and runway strength. If those parameters are sufficient, they have clearance to land here. No matter how we proceed, we are unable to control who lands at our airport. That does not include regularly scheduled commercial traffic. This would require the city to apply for a Part 139 Airport Certification from the FAA. No one on the council is seeking to increase traffic to the Heber Valley Airport or provide regularly scheduled commercial traffic.
The staff put together a detailed report of the ongoing cost of the Heber Valley Airport for the next 20 years, including annual maintenance and routine expenditures. That cost is approximately $52 million. If we decided to move forward without a partnership with the FAA, that $52 million would potentially be paid using tax dollars. I truly appreciate the offer from the county of a potential agreement for up to $500,000 per year for five years to help meet this burden. However, per the FAA grant assurances, we aren’t allowed to have other entities that are not co-sponsors of the airport help pay expenses pertaining thereto. Also, the $52 million does not take into account the existing lease of the FBO operator or other residents of the airport who have hangars. The lawsuits from these individuals are extremely difficult to value or put a dollar number on, and any cosponsor of the airport would then assume liability along with Heber City for future potential legal action.
This discussion of expenditures is important. There have been questions tossed around in the community regarding what it would cost to not have the FAA involved, and we finally have more concrete numbers. The council does not feel it wise to burden taxpayers with the expenses of the airport. As of now, it is completely self-sufficient as a public use FAA partner airport. Annual landing fees and fuel usage fees cover the necessary expenses, along with the FAA grants that we receive for the airport to operate independent of any tax dollars. We did have one question pertaining to the FAA’s funding and whether that money comes from federal tax dollars. FAA funding is collected from airport users. This is the case for any airport in the United States and pertains to every commercial ticket purchased. If you fly from Salt Lake City International Airport to any destination in the world, you are an airport user. A portion of that ticket goes to the FAA, who then distributes those funds to airports as needed. It’s actually a brilliant system that ensures only those who use airports pay for airports. Do Heber City residents want to give up those dollars and trade them to pay taxes instead?
Another argument I hear frequently is that we are inviting more aircraft by making improvements to the runway and taxiway. Our airport is unique. Last time we resurfaced the runway, we used the minimum amount of materials necessary. This includes the minimum amount of road base and the minimum amount of asphalt. This would normally give the airport a lower runway strength, restricting larger airplanes from landing. However, the Heber Valley Airport runway is built on bedrock. This allows much larger jets to land than normally could with our airport design. The runway strength that is published is much stronger than what we built the runway for because of what is underneath the runway, not the asphalt on top. We are not looking to increase the strength of the runway and we are not looking to lengthen the runway. In fact, we asked the FAA if we could shorten the runway, but they rejected this. The runway would be 25 feet wider to provide a buffer zone, also known as a safety zone, so planes that are currently landing at the airport can do so safely.
We are also looking to move the runway to the southwest on the airfield. This does a few things. First, it takes the safety zone further from the center of town and further away from Highway 189. Like I said before, I am mostly concerned about the safety of the surrounding population. There are already people off the southwest of the runway who would ultimately be living in a safety zone based on where the planes currently land. Continuing the master planning process will allow them to stay in their homes if they choose, but will also give them the option of selling their land. In this scenario, we would help them relocate to another area outside of the airport safety zone. If we do not move forward with the master plan, this option is less likely. We cannot use eminent domain on property in Daniel. There are two places on the master plan where there’s property in Daniel that is mapped into the airport layout or runway layout. Again, the city will not be able to use eminent domain to purchase these properties, but we are able to make offers to those residents if they decide they would like to sell.
There is another important aspect of the viable alternative upon which we voted Tuesday night. When all is said and done, we are limiting the developable property at the airport. By moving the runway and expanding the safety zones, there will be much less property to build hangars and facilities. I feel it’s a priority of the council to make sure that our current hangar owners are made whole, especially those on hanger row, which would need to be demolished in the current viable option. We want to make sure that planes currently on the airfield have a place to go in the new design. Unfortunately, this does not address the 300 people currently on the waiting list for a hangar. There is demand to create a much larger airport, and we are not looking to do that. That said, if there is open property at the airfield and someone brings a proposal to build a hangar, FBO, or other airport entity on that property, we do have to consider it as a city. The Airport Layout Plan (ALP) Design is one of the upcoming steps in this process and will be very important as we look at the future of the Heber Valley Airport.
After all of the council members had a chance to speak, Rachel Kahler made the motion to proceed with the master plan and with developing a final term sheet for the settlement agreement with OK3 Air. This is not a final approval of the airport layout plan, a final approval of the master plan, or a final approval of the term sheet for the settlement with OK3 Air. The motion made Tuesday evening is only to proceed with the master planning process and with bringing forward a final term sheet for the settlement.
The final vote was 4-1 where Yvonne Barney was the only “no” vote. She provided a wonderful explanation of why she voted this way, and I completely respect her reasoning. There is no doubt that in my 10 months on the City Council, this was the hardest vote we have had to make. I look forward to the future of the Heber Valley Airport as we continue to participate in the master planning process.
D. Scott Phillips
Heber City Council