By: Janet Urquhart
ASPEN — A plan for future development at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport that includes replacement of the commercial terminal and eventual development on the airport’s west side took a step forward Tuesday, when county commissioners agreed that it is ready for Planning and Zoning Commission review.
The airport’s aviation director, consultants and the county manager continued to stress that the master plan represents a reservation of space for future improvements, as opposed to firm design proposals, but its recommended layout of facilities and the size of the buildings will be presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
The Planning and Zoning Commission will offer only referral comments back to commissioners, according to Lance Clarke, the county’s deputy director of community development. With the Planning and Zoning Commission’s input in hand, commissioners are expected to hold public hearings on the master plan and formally vote on its adoption sometime this fall.
Each component of the plan will see individual review and approval as specific projects come forward, according to Clarke.
The recommended improvement plan envisions replacement of the commercial terminal with an 80,000-square-foot building, which is nearly double the size of the existing terminal, plus a combination of underground and surface parking. It also establishes a second fixed-base operator for general aviation on the west, or Owl Creek, side of the airport and a new taxiway, parallel to the runway, on the west side.
There’s a sense in the community that the facilities are set in stone once they’re in the master plan, said County Commissioner Rob Ittner, but he vowed to scrutinize the details of each project as it comes forward. Something smaller than an 80,000-square-foot terminal is probably appropriate to start, he said.
County Commissioner Jack Hatfield continued to call for phasing of projects rather than, for example, building a new 80,000-square-foot terminal from the get-go. And, though the plan includes both surface parking and a garage, commissioners will still have the opportunity to opt for strictly surface parking when the time comes, said County Manager Jon Peacock.
Hatfield also pressed for accommodating a second fixed-base operator, on the east side of the airport, north of the existing one, but consultants said that plan results in a congested ramp and aircraft parking area and will mean eliminating some of the covered airplane hangars, called patio hangars, that currently serve local pilots. Hatfield suggested some of the patio hangers move to the west side along with other aircraft parking, but received no support for the idea from his colleagues.
“I think west-side (development) is probably inevitable,” Hatfield concluded. “I would do anything I can to make sure it didn’t happen right away.”
County commissioners did spend some time scrutinizing projected revenues Tuesday, particularly the rental income from a second fixed-base operator, or FBO. The privately run operation would produce $3 million annually in rent revenue, compared with less than $200,000 annually from the contract with the existing FBO, according to projections.
Pressure from prospective operators of a second FBO is among the drivers behind the master-planning process, according to aviation director Jim Elwood. The plan allows the county to be proactive in establishing parameters for another FBO, he said. Because the airport has accepted federal grant funds, it can’t refuse to allow a competing fixed-base operator when it has room to accommodate one, commissioners have been told.
The $3 million in annual revenue from a second FBO is a “conservative” estimate, said financial consultant Stephen Horton, of Leibowitz & Horton.
The value of operating an FBO at the local airport has increased significantly and will continue to do so, according to Horton. Fuel sales at Aspen are comparable to those by the FBO at San Diego International Airport, where bids to operate the business were as high as $5 million annually, he said.
Ittner questioned whether the airport needs the lease revenue from the second fixed-base operator to fund the terminal replacement; Horton said that is not the case.
Though no vote was required Tuesday, and Hatfield said he might cast a “no” vote when the time comes, county commissioners were unanimous in agreeing that the plan is ready to send to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“The current airport doesn’t reflect a particularly high standard,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “I think this plan is a step toward having the best possible facility for our residents and visitors.”