ASPEN - An updated master plan that outlines future facilities at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport won formal approval Wednesday from county commissioners on a 4-1 vote after some two years of public input and review.
Several commissioners and Jim Elwood, airport aviation director, stressed again that the plan simply reserves space for potential developments that will see in-depth review if and when they come forward individually. But several residents attending the public hearing questioned the need for the scope of what's envisioned and the county's ability to pay for it.
"I worry that 'space reservation' is a nice way of saying this is what's going to get built," Peter Looram said. "I'm afraid it's an out-of-control train coming through the back door."
John McBride, a pilot, said he hasn't heard any clamoring in the community for the envisioned improvements.
"We have a wonderful little airport now that works well, that people love whether they fly in commercially or privately," he said.
The plan establishes space for a new terminal as large as 80,000 square feet with eight boarding gates, plus 1,300 parking stalls through a combination of a surface lot and an underground garage. About 950 parking spaces exist currently; they would be consolidated in the new parking arrangement. The terminal would be nearly twice the size of the existing one, which commissioners agree is deficient in terms of space, but they've suggested that a new building that is perhaps 60,000 square feet could be an appropriate starting point.
The master plan also allows reconfiguration of some elements of the existing fixed-base operator, or FBO, which serves private aircraft and sells fuel, and the addition of a second operator on the west, or Owl Creek, side of the airport. The latter development would require the construction of a second taxiway, parallel to the runway.
Rob Snyder, a member of the Airport Master Plan Study Committee that helped shape the document, questioned the forecasts for future growth at the airport on which the plan is predicated.
"I find some of the projections that get us to the growth rate we need to support this a little suspect and quite hopeful," he said.
He questioned the wisdom of placing financial reliance on rent from a second fixed-base operator and asked what would happen if one of the businesses went under, leaving the airport saddled with debt associated with improvements. A $50 million revenue bond that would be repaid with airport revenues is part of the financing scheme outlined in a financial analysis that is part of the master plan.
Fred Mosher, general manager of existing fixed-base operator Atlantic Aviation, also expressed concern about divvying up business between two operators in Aspen's seasonal market.
"We're not sure what the outcome will be with a second FBO and a dilution of our business," he said. "I'm hopeful that there could be something else that could perhaps be put on the west side."
The previous airport master plan set aside the west side for future aeronautical uses but offered no specifics to guide development. A flight school or charter service would fit within that scope, but interest has come from potential operators of a second fixed-base operator that provides a full slate of services to aircraft.
Commissioners again were reminded of their legal obligation to allow development on the west side and accommodate a competing fixed-base operator because it has accepted federal funding for airport improvements - in excess of $80 million in the past 20 years, according to Elwood.
"The county is under increased scrutiny because there is only one FBO at the airport today," said Dan Reimer, outside legal counsel to the airport.
Whether a second fixed-base operator would be successful is not a consideration the county can use to prevent such a development in general, though the county could decide a particular prospective applicant isn't qualified to build the contemplated operator improvements, Reimer advised.
If an application from a prospective fixed-base operator is received and deemed complete, the county would conduct a process to accept proposals from other interested parties, as well, Elwood said.
While commissioners have little control over the timing that leads to a second fixed-base operator, since it will be driven by interest from the private sector, the county will decide when other elements of the master plan, such as a new terminal, move forward.
The development of design guidelines for whatever improvements are contemplated is the next step, Elwood said. In addition, the layout plan for the airport that is part of the master plan will now be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval.
"This is the end of a two-year process and the beginning of multiple processes going forward," said Commissioner Rachel Richards, reiterating the obligations to the FAA that have driven the latest master-plan process.
"It's not something I'm jumping up and down about. ... We're doing our best to meet our legal requirements and community needs," she said.
Only Commissioner Jack Hatfield voted against adoption of the plan, reiterating his objections to a parking garage in the near term, concerns about west-side development and the potential size of a new terminal.
"My vision is not this vision. My vision is less," Hatfield said.