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Bitterrooters fear more unfriendly skies

Schooling new legislators



Fifty-nine people in Stevensville are determined that their town won’t make the same mistake Hamilton did a few years ago.

That’s how many people have signed a petition to stop any plans the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may have to extend the runway at the Stevensville airport.

Dave Simmons lives near the south end of the 3,800-foot runway and spearheaded the petition drive after hearing that the FAA wanted to buy his neighbor’s land on the north end of the runway for an extension and an expanded “runway clear zone.”

The town of Stevensville owns the airport, so City Hall was where Simmons first headed to get some information. He had no luck until a building inspector came up with a 20-year-old airport layout plan, which showed a 1,000 foot extension on the north.

“City Hall says, ‘Yeah, but this is only a proposal.’ My question is when does it become more than a proposal?” Simmons says.

Scott Bell, an engineer with the Bozeman firm Morris and Maierle confirms that the FAA is in the process of buying land for a future runway extension. The FAA got interested in the Stevensville airport, he says, when a north-end landowner tried to subdivide his land but was denied when the Ravalli County Commission learned that his land was too close to the airport runway for a residential subdivision.

Bell says the FAA must compensate that landowner by buying the land since it cannot be developed. And since the agency is buying up land on the north end, he says, it might as well buy up some more on the south end, in preparation for the day when Stevensville actually does extend the airport.

Other than land acquisition, there are no plans currently to extend the runway, according to FAA civil engineer John Styba.

But the opponents, who sent their 59 signatures to Montana’s congressional delegation, may be trying to avoid the same runway fiasco the Hamilton airport experienced several years ago, and which popped up again last spring.

The FAA looked at the Hamilton runway and offered a substantial grant to Ravalli County—the airport’s owner—to extend it another 1,000 feet. The proposal was wildly unpopular with citizens, and the matter was dropped. But the FAA returned last spring with an ultimatum to the county commission: Begin land acquisition for a runway extension now, or lose all FAA funding for all future airport projects.

The commission is now looking at buying land on the north side of the Hamilton airport for a future extension that virtually no one but the FAA wants.

Simmons and his 58 neighbors want to avoid that situation. “My concern is a UPS cargo ship coming in at three in the morning,” he says.

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