Airport to look at strings attached to FAA funds
The Truckee Tahoe Airport board did not made a decision on whether to accept or deny federal grants last week, but did decide to hire an aviation lawyer to advise it on the obligations that come along with accepting federal money.Federal Aviation Administration grants, available to airports across the country, have become a contentious topic among area residents at recent airport board meetings. The board is exploring whether the district will have more freedom to control aspects of airport operations, including airplane traffic or hangar use, if it refuses federal money and the strings that come along with that funding.”I want to keep this as one of the best general aviation airports in the country,” said airport board member Paul Vatistas, noting that the airport must also be a responsible neighbor to district residents. “If the FAA funding helps us get there then great. If it doesn’t then it is part of the problem and not part of the solution.”The airport hired Kaplan, Kirsch and Rockwell, a Denver, Colo.- based law firm, to guide it to a decision, which airport General Manager Dave Gotschall said may not be made until next spring.The airport has until October of 2006 to decide whether to use the funding, which is set at $150,000 per year. The district has three years of funding stored up – making a total of $450,000 available to the airport. If the board does not decide on accepting the funding by next October it will lose the first installment of $150,000.Airport attorney Peter Kirsch explained to the board how a handful of airports across the country have experimented with “de-federalizing.” But the details of airport law in regard to de-federalization are still hazy, he said.”This is an evolving area of the law and there are not a lot of precedents,” Kirsch said.There are two ways to de-federalize an airport, he said.The “long and safe path” to removing federal grant obligations from a local airport is to stop accepting federal money, and wait 20 years for previous grant obligations to expire. The airport would also have to get rid of any land that it had purchased with federal money, since the federal obligations for land purchase last as long as the airport owns the land bought with federal money.The second option is to violate the federal obligations, and fight the battle in court, Kirsch said.”There are ways to become de-federalized by violating federal law,” he said. “That has some enormous litigation consequences.”Despite the heated comments that have surrounded the debate over whether the airport should continue accepting federal money, many airports across the nation have been asking themselves the exact same questions about de-federalization, according to Kirsch.”There are many, many airports around the country that are having the conversation that you are having today,” Kirsch said.But many members of the public appeared unhappy with the board’s exploration of whether to accept or deny federal funding. Many asked the board to accept the funding and drop the idea of de-federalization.”I believe that refusing funds for Truckee is like refusing a life-saving transfusion to see if you we can live without blood,” said Laurel Lippert.Others added that denying federal money could sour the relationship the Truckee Tahoe Airport has with the federal aviation community.”Please don’t throw away the right to go after money,” said Lou Reinkens, a former Truckee Tahoe Airport board member. “Keep the doors open with the FAA and don’t burn any bridges.”Denny Dickinson added that if the airport takes the federal money it may be best used to address airport noise.”Do you take the money from the FAA and build hangars or do you take the money and be good neighbors?” asked Dickinson.At the end of the discussion, board president Michael Golden was ready to accept the funding and end the conversation.”I haven’t heard a compelling argument to not receive federal funding this morning,” said Golden at the board meeting. “From my perspective I would vote right now to accept the grant funding and move on.”But other members of the board were in favor of continuing the discussion over federal funding.”This dialogue, a year ago, was not happening,” said board member Mary Hetherington. “I am very excited that everyone is talking.”In a subsequent interview, Gotschall, the airport general manager, said that the board is collecting all the information on the ramifications of accepting or giving up federal funding so that they can make an informed decision.”I think it just takes time,” Gotschall said. “They’re actually doing all their homework. I think, for the community, it is the best decision.”
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