Few issues have been as divisive and controversial in the Bitterroot Valley in recent years as the pending decision to expand the Hamilton airport.
In the next two weeks, the Board of Ravalli County Commissioners must decide whether or not to purchase land around the airport to safeguard it against encroaching development, and possibly expand the airport in coming years.
There is no more vocal opposition than ICAARE: Informing Citizens About Airport Expansion. For months ICAARE and the board of commissioners have been at loggerheads as the commission tries to find a way to keep everyone happy: the pilots who use the airport, the neighbors who live nearby and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has plenty of tax money to invest in improving and upgrading small general aviation airports like the one in Hamilton.
But where some see opportunity in the form of aviation-related jobs, ICAARE sees opportunism.
ICAARE member Dennis Moore accuses Ravalli County Commission Chairman Alan Thompson of being “a puppet for the FAA and the wealthy plane owners” for apparently favoring a land acquisition plan that could cost local taxpayers as much as $2 million.
Another ICAARE member, Betsy Kratofil, says the county has already established a 6,000-acre “influence area” where homeowners would be precluded from developing their land in ways that are incompatible with an airport. “We lose all our property rights,” she says.
But the biggest winner, says Moore, is Morrison-Maierle, the engineering firm currently working on the land acquisition on the county’s behalf. Moore says the company’s fees are largely paid by the FAA, which, he argues, creates an obvious conflict of interest. “Who’s their boss?” asks Moore, noting that Morrison-Maierle stands to make $51,200 for negotiating the land purchase. “The bigger the project, the more money they make. So what do you think they’re going to recommend?”
Moore says the county taxpayers would be better off by simply keeping up with the airport’s maintenance, rather than by purchasing surrounding land as a safeguard against creeping development. The FAA has said that it will cut the purse strings with Ravalli County if the county does nothing to protect the airport or plan for future expansion. Without a firm commitment from the county, says the FAA, investing federal tax dollars in the Hamilton airport is akin to throwing money down a rat hole.
But Moore and ICAARE are skeptical. Questions put to the FAA in Helena and Washington, D.C. often yield conflicting answers and doubletalk, he says. He also fears that the FAA wants to improve and expand the Hamilton airport to make it an alternative for corporate jets when the Missoula airport is socked in.
An expanded airport, says Moore, will also be a boon to the wealthy homeowners of the nearby Stock Farm development. They don’t want an airstrip at the Stock Farm, he says, but they do support a longer runway at Hamilton to accommodate a growing number of private jets flying in and out of Hamilton. “It’s primarily a convenience for them,” says Moore.