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Airport plans are still up in the air

The Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport Commission on Tuesday laid out its case for expanding the runway by 900 feet to 5,400 feet.

But it was difficult to tell how the presentation by Airport Commission member Mark Hagen was received by the combined group of county commissioners and city council members at city hall.

They mostly listened in silence, although there were a number of questions and calls for change from project opponents -- notably aldermen Ron Zemen and James Hannon.

"Every time I ask questions, I get attacked by you guys," Hannon told commission members. "I'm not going to put up with it this time."

Hannon called for terms on the airport commission to be staggered to prevent the city and county from taking turns appointing the same person. And he asked that copies of the thick environmental impact statement be given to elected officials, or better yet put online for all to read: The $3,000 cost would be worth it, considering the money that has already been spent, he said.

"I don't think you've shown a need to expand the runway," he added.

Zemen was also pointed in his criticism.

"I kind of have the feeling that it bothers you a bit when city council members come out to ask questions," he said. "Sometimes it's a booster shot to have new ideas and new people (on the commission)."

He also criticized the cost of the project so far, which is still in its first phase.

"How many more tax dollars will be spent on this environmental work, which has gone on over the last eight or nine years?" he asked.

The original contract with the airport commission's consulting firm, SEH of St. Paul, was for $208,000. There is also a $75,000 supplemental agreement, according to Raymond Strege, principal at SEH.

Cost to SEH has been more than $381,000 so far, he said.

"We've lost $100,000 on the contract, but we are on a lump-sum contract and we will finish," he added.

"It's been a difficult project," Hagen said. "I don't know if there are any 100 percent right answers in the end because of the constraints of the areas we live in, and the constraints of FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations."

A busy airport

The airport is unique in that it can service float planes that land at Long Lake and runway planes at the same facility, Hagen said.

It is an "unregulated airport" so nobody tracks visitors, but the airport is used frequently by a number of major businesses including UPS, Wal-Mart, Menard's, BTD and Team Industries, as well as medical use and it sees heavy tourism use during major festivals.

It's used by the DNR to fight fires and by the State Patrol to nail speeders and do search and rescue work. UND students, the Civil Air Patrol and the Young Pilots Program affiliated with DARE all use the airport.

There are 60 planes based there. "Every hangar is full," Hagen said, and some 15-20 people work there in various capacities and businesses

Hagen said he is the only one on the five-member airport commission who is a pilot, and that the runway expansion is not for the use of a privileged few.

"No person on the airport commission (or in local government) needs the airport expanded for their use," he said.

The expansion is for jet traffic, and will help keep DL competitive with cities like Brainerd, Bemidji, Park Rapids and Fergus Falls, he said.

"Every city in our peer group has at least a 5,000-foot runway," he said.

The quest for a longer runway in Detroit Lakes started in 1999, when charter flights started canceling because their insurance wouldn't cover use of the 4,500-foot runway, Hagen said.

It's difficult to make a case for those who are not currently visiting DL because of the runway length, he added.

"Determining who will use the airport is like trying to determine the names of people who will stay at a new hotel or use a new highway," he said in his presentation.

The value of the airport land for development should not be a consideration, he added, any more than the value of the city beach or Pavilion, since they serve a public purpose and would never be sold to a developer.

Small airports generally do not do well more than five miles outside of town, and there are no suitable sites within that radius, he said.

"Nobody would like to see a new airport more than I would," he said, but SEH studied the options and because of wildlife restrictions, wetlands or terrain, found no suitable sites.

"You either believe we used our best judgment in looking at new sites or we should be taken off the job and it should be given to someone else," Hagen said.

Regulators have doubts

Representatives from several environmental agencies took turns throwing cold water on the runway expansion plan, which involves wetland mitigation and possibly greater output by the city's chemical plant.

Bob Merritt, regional hydrologist with the DNR, said it might be possible to expand the runway, but the airport commission needs a fresh start -- and a better relationship -- with regulators.

"Quite frankly, there was not a person who reviewed it from environmental agencies that felt the alternatives had been properly look at," he told the group. "It really did not give us a good feeling that we're avoiding as much (adverse impact) as possible. It didn't come through on the EA. For whatever reason, the communication wasn't there."

For the DNR, improved safety for airport users would likely trump environmental concerns, he added, but only if the FAA agrees the expansion is justified. If not, "you'll have a hard time getting through us," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers hasn't even started the process of looking at the project, but would like to begin, a representative said.

"I think we can smooth out some of the things we've been running into," he said.

Wastewater woes

The runway expansion would mean the loss of the city's waste water irrigation system, which uses airport land.

The most cost effective way to replace that loss is by greater use of chemical treatment, which will cost about $19,000 a year, said City Engineer Gary Nansen.

That will cause a big problem with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said an MPCA representative. "It increases phosphorus into St. Clair Lake," she told the group, noting that the lake is proposed to join the EPA "impaired waters" list for next year.

The MPCA and Pelican River Watershed District just spent "a lot of money cleaning it (Lake St. Clair) up" she said. "When the airport can't be expanded any more and the wastewater treatment plant can't be expanded any more, how is the city going to handle growth?"

Move the airport?

Others who spoke included Bob Bristlin, Dave Brainard and Bob Spillman, who advocated moving the airport beyond the five-mile radius, to make room for development and avoid future congestion problems, among other comments.

Becker County Commissioner Harry Salminen -- who serves as liaison to the airport commission -- spoke in favor of the expansion, saying that was told by a county commissioner there that the new Wadena airport is seeing much less traffic because it is too far out of town.

Becker County Commissioner Karen Mulari drew a round of applause for the airport commission when thanked them for their hard work.

Fixed Operating Base owner-operators Mark Bergen and Erik Carlson said business is booming at the airport, and disputed Zemen's contention that the airport commission micromanages the FOB owner, and that's why two owners came and went relatively quickly before Bergen and Carlson took over. Bob Nelson is also an owner.

Lee Kessler, president of the Long Lake Betterment Association, and a former MnDOT employee, said closing Airport Road, which would be necessary under the expansion plan, would cause traffic problems by mixing slow- and fast-moving traffic on Highway 10.

"MnDOT's comment was 'don't do this.' That was their comment," he said.