The City Council on Wednesday approved a 20-year plan to address federal safety requirements at the Lebanon Municipal Airport.
The council has long debated how to balance the airport’s needs with the effects on neighbors, the environment and taxpayers.
Despite the majority support for the safety improvement plan, in comments ahead of the council’s 6-2 vote, councilors and members of the public made clear they have continued concerns about the airport’s ability to pay for itself.
Councilor Karen Liot Hill said that the proposed safety upgrades would require the removal of fewer trees and terrain and would be less costly than previous proposals the council has considered.
“It certainly is a better deal for Lebanon than what was initially proposed,” Liot Hill said. “I would hate to jeopardize our relationship with the (Federal Aviation Administration) by dragging our feet.”
In addition to Liot Hill, Mayor Georgia Tuttle and councilors Carol Dustin, Clifton Below, Sue Prentiss and Bill Finn supported the plan, while councilors Erling Heistad and Bruce Bronner opposed it. Councilor Tim McNamara abstained.
Heistad said he wondered if the thousands of dollars taxpayers devote to the airport annually might be used in better ways.
“Are we getting the benefit of the airport that we would be getting if we put this some place else in city government?” he said.
He said he was skeptical that some of the consultant’s recommendations for future revenue sources would work, including the new hangars, paid parking and a restaurant.
As approved, the $46.7 million plan would include adding crushable concrete blocks to the ends of the runways in order to stop planes without injuring those on board and causing minimal damage to the planes.
Improvements would also include reconstructing the taxiways and both runways and extending the north-south taxiway south to the end of the runway, expanding a snow removal equipment building and an aircraft rescue and fire-fighting building and allowing a private entity to construct two new hangars — one 16,800 square feet in area and the other 45,000 square feet.
The city’s consultant for the airport plan, Chad Nixon of Binghamton, N.Y.-based McFarland Johnson, told councilors that they would have an opportunity to scrutinize each airport project again before spending money and moving toward construction.
“You’re never bound by this document ever,” Nixon said.
The council’s approval, however, does indicate the city’s intention to move forward on the safety improvements, he said.
He also told them that he believes regulators have made an effort to find a middle ground with city officials in the scope of improvements included in the plan.
“You’re getting a very good deal,” he said.
Of the estimated $46.7 million cost to complete all of the recommended improvements over 20 years, 90 percent would be covered by the Federal Aviation Administration, 5 percent by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and 5 percent — or about $1.9 million — by the city.
The city’s portion would come from passenger facility charges for passengers who get on planes in Lebanon, other airport revenue and the city’s general fund.
Still, some councilors and members of the public remain concerned about the airport’s cost.
McNamara abstained from the council’s vote because he said he wanted more information about the airport’s business plan, including information about what land surrounding the airport is available for future airport revenue generation and what is not.
He described the consultant’s plan as “50 to 75 percent of the puzzle” and said he worried that moving forward, the city’s taxpayers would continue to subsidize the airport.
Tuttle said the questions of the airport’s business plan and its land ownership were not directly related to the safety improvement plan.
“If we have an accident there the city is liable,” Tuttle said. “(I’m) not interested as a councilor in putting the city at any risk.”
Similarly, City Manager Dennis Luttrell spoke in favor of the plan.
“I believe that in the interest of public safety I would encourage the council to go forward,” he said.
He also warned councilors that though federal officials seem willing to compromise now, they may not be willing to do so in the future.
“The council needs to strike; take advantage of the situation that currently exists that may not exist a year from now,” Luttrell said.
Six audience members — many of them airport neighbors — spoke against the proposed changes at the airport, citing concerns about the airport’s cost to taxpayers.
Though she acknowledged the consultant’s plan would have a lesser effect on the surrounding area than previous proposals, Poverty Lane resident Amy Dingley said she felt it leaves the city in the same predicament.
“We’re still in the same spot of a great deal of our money benefiting not many people,” Dingley said.
She also questioned some of the consultant’s suggestions for increasing airport revenues, pointing to the idea that the police station begin paying the airport an annual lease for occupying a section of airport land.
Dingley described that proposal as “just another way of Lebanon giving money to the airport.”
The city supported less than 1 percent of the total airport capital investments in the decade from 2003 to 2013, said Councilor Clifton Below, who supported the plan. He acknowledged that taxpayers have more heavily subsidized the airport’s operations at an average of $170,000 annually since 2009.
Below said that refusing to comply with the FAA’s requirements would put funding of regular maintenance projects in jeopardy, worsening the airport’s financial position. He supported the idea of pursuing a broader business plan, but said it should be done at the same time as the city moves forward with the safety improvements.
Below suggested those who would like to see an end to the city’s obligation to continue operating the airport contact their legislators.
“If we want the possibility of getting out from this, it’s going to take an act of the U.S. Congress,” he said.
The next step will be for the consultants to bring the council’s plan to the FAA for its approval, Nixon said.
“The likelihood of this being a quick process is unlikely,” he said.
The first phase of construction is not slated to begin until 2018, he said.