Tony Vagneur: Shoving a bigger airport down Aspen’s throat

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Monday was a beautiful day — few clouds, good snow, great companions and another chapter in the life of a budding ski bum notched. My grandson, Cash, and I took his mother skiing with us, a treat not experienced before. We can honestly say that Panda Peak has never skied better, although trying to keep Cash from taking off from the high point of a huge man-made, cone-shaped, ice-hard snow pile took some fast talking on our parts. He will be four next month.

A quick lunch and then we headed for home, savoring the good time, nostrils and lungs burning and rebelling against the stench of jet fuel exhaust. My battle-scarred lungs and mucous membranes are likely past the point of much caring, but it really infuriated me to think that my grandson, who is so new to the world, has to be subjected to such pollution. His younger sister will be out here soon, too.

A woman I know who works at the Aspen Business Center complains that her office gets a heavy dose of the stuff each and every day the airport operates. Think of the kids at Burlingame and North 40 sucking up that heavy, chemical-infused air.

It’s an interesting town we live in. On the one hand, we’re all about environmentalism, protecting the natural world. Living right next door to official wilderness areas somehow makes us think we’re caretakers — we go on about increasing roadless areas, protecting viewplanes, objecting to fracking, putting recycling laws on the books and on and on, ad nauseam.

On the other hand, we’re all about creating bandit trails, riding dirt bikes, mountain bikes and OHVs roughshod all over the mountains while oohing and aahing over how much we love the great outdoors; ignoring “closed for wildlife” signs wherever we think we can get away with it, scattering trash wherever it suits us, and on and on, ad nauseam.

Which brings us back to the airport. Sometime before the collective memory, say 1996, there was a county-wide vote concerning expansion of Sardy Field. The Federal Aviation Administration, in its inimitable way, suggested we needed to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet and some other stuff, and folks went to the polls in a clear-cut decision. The plan was shot down, but a group of stakeholders were appointed to a master plan committee to plan for future airport expansion.

A 1,000-foot extension to the then-existing runway was later approved, with the caveat that wingspans must remain at 95 feet in width or smaller, and that no planes the size of 737s or larger would be permitted to land. Plus, the FAA went along with demanded curfew hours, limiting take-off and landing times. The FAA grandfathered in the curfew hours but somehow forgot to do so with wing and plane size.

So now that same master plan committee has us at the brink of widening the runway by 80 feet and massively increasing the size of the terminal. This is causing some in the community to dance wildly in the middle of the airport’s only runway, welcoming the increased mass, saying that’s what an ever-greedy tourist town needs.

Others with perhaps a more-grounded stake in the community are saying that a lot has changed since the airport has been expanded and paved, and maybe we should take a look at the fact that “one runway ASE (Aspen)” is in the middle of a mostly residential area. Buttermilk West, Meadowood, North Forty, Burlingame, Woody Creek and the Aspen Business Center have all been developed since the creation of Sardy Field. And the airport keeps getting louder and stinkier.

The bottom line, however, is that the FAA, through federal arrogance, is holding our community hostage. According to the FAA, no vote is necessary to enable the airport expansion as only Board of County Commissioners approval is necessary to move forward. Perhaps we should tell the Board of County Commissioners that maybe that’s how the FAA sees it, but the community (the people the board represents) seeks a vote before our village is forever changed by FAA inflexibility.

If you have concerns about air pollution, noise pollution or other tragedies caused by growth, rest assured that the airport expansion will not be cause for such concerns, at least relative to federal thresholds, as they apply to airports. If the North 40 has noise concerns, the FAA will build a noise wall to deflect the sound — a wall maybe 14 feet high. Welcome to the new Aspen.

We live in a small town at the end of a very narrow mountain valley, and the FAA is making us build an airport suitable to a larger, flatter town. The catch is that a bigger town might have room for expansion; Aspen does not. It’s like trying to cram 50 pounds of horse s___ into a 30-pound bag. Trust me — it always gets ugly.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at