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November 9, 2011
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Aspen airport plans: Too big? Too much?

ASPEN - One Pitkin County commissioner on Tuesday decried the "Eagle-Vail-ization" of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, and another suggested that more of the community needs to be made aware of the proposed future facilities there before the planning goes much further.

Commissioners were given an update Tuesday on various alternatives for future general aviation facilities at the airport - those that serve private planes and jets - after focusing on proposed alternatives for a new or renovated commercial terminal about a month ago.

Alternatives for all of the future facilities at the airport - just about everything but the newly lengthened runway and adjacent taxiway - have been the focus of a master plan update that started last January. The goal is to lay out the location of future facilities, to be built as need dictates and financing becomes available, said Jim Elwood, director of aviation, but Tuesday's discussion turned toward whether the county is committing to the improvements by putting them down on paper.

Dan Reimer, the county's legal counsel on airport issues, explained the county's ability to control what is developed at the airport versus its obligation to accommodate private entities that want to do business there - a consequence of accepting Federal Aviation Administration grant money, he said.

"That's the line we're trying to walk," Elwood said.

The four alternatives for general aviation include maintaining the status quo, with one fixed-base operator (currently Atlantic Aviation), one that puts all additional facilities on the east side, along Highway 82, and two that allow further development on the west side of the airport, off Owl Creek Road. West-side aircraft facilities would require a parallel taxiway on that side of the runway; there is currently only the one on the east side.

Additional facilities envisioned in some of the alternatives include a second fixed-base operator, helicopter parking, more aircraft parking and hangars - some as large as 40,000 square feet. Given the height of some private jets, the dimensions of such a hangar troubled Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

"It's almost the Eagle-Vail-ization of our airport," he said, calling the proposed changes too drastic. "We're going to have gigantic buildings. ... It's totally unacceptable.

"We've left ourselves open to, what I feel, the community isn't likely going to accept," Hatfield added.

Hatfield advocated keeping things as they are, asking Reimer if that's possible, and other commissioners quizzed Reimer on whether they're obligated to allocate every available space at the airport to some future function, opening up the west side to additional development. The airport built an operations center there several years ago.

"Legally, yes, you could keep things status quo," Reimer said. The county can either address each request from a private entity that wants to operate at the airport on a case-by-case basis or plan for future demands in a more coordinated fashion, he suggested.

"What is it that we want our airport to look and feel like in the future, if we don't want it to be hodgepodge?" Elwood asked.

It's no secret, Commissioner Rachel Richards noted, that there's interest from the private sector in having a second fixed-base operator at the airport. The FBO sells fuel to aircraft operators, and provides maintenance services.

She pondered maintaining surface parking at the airport as a strategy to limit development. Underground parking has been proposed to consolidate parking and create more space for other needs.

Commissioner Rob Ittner asked whether the planning is being driven by private jet traffic and questioned how far the county must go to accommodate it.

General aviation numbers have been on the decline at the airport, but the private aircraft have gotten bigger, Elwood said.

Commissioner Michael Owsley said he remains open to the planning process and what has been proposed.

"I'm not ready right now to make a categorical exclusion of any alternative," said Owsley, arguing that big jets are something the airport needs to accommodate.

"They're not going to be palatable for some people, but we're going to have to deal with the fortunate reality that those people want to come here," he said. "I'm comfortable with the alternatives."

Airport officials and a team of consultants have tried to engage the community and a 50-member advisory group in each step of the planning for future facilities. An open house Monday to show off the plans drew 33 people, Elwood said, and their comments were recorded.

But Richards said the process needs greater citizen participation.

"I feel we really need to take this further in terms of public outreach," she said. "Now's the time to go beyond 75 or 100 self-selected individuals being involved."

The ideas as they have evolved so far reflect the views of the community, Elwood maintained.

"There may be a different perspective from the community now that those concepts start to come into focus," he conceded.

County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the airport master plan process at a work session on Dec. 6. Consultants are expected to begin work on the financial implications of the various alternatives.

Go to www.aspenairportplanning.com for more on the master plan process to date.

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Nov 9, 2011 03:10PM Published Nov 9, 2011 12:55AM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.