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Runway plan hits turbulence at Saratoga County Airport

Thursday, May 22, 2014
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— If plans to extend the main runway at the Saratoga County Airport get through the county’s Buildings and Grounds Committee, it will be over the committee chairman’s objections.

Milton Supervisor Dan Lewza said he’ll fight proposals for either an 800-foot or 300-foot runway extension currently under consideration as part of an airport master plan update.

A draft of the master plan is scheduled to come before the Buildings and Grounds Committee at a meeting June 9 in the county offices in Ballston Spa.

“I’m against it. It’s affecting so many people,” the second-term Republican said before a public meeting on the expansion plans Tuesday night at the Geyser Road firehouse.

About 250 people — most of them from the dense residential subdivisions that surround the airport — turned out for the meeting, and nearly all oppose any runway extension.

An 800-foot lengthening would require taking a number of existing properties, and even a 300-foot extension would require some land acquisitions. Potentially, expansion would require demolition of Gateway House of Peace, a residence for the terminally ill in a building near the northeast runway end being leased from the county.

Gateway, which opened in April, has invested about $165,000 in the building over the past three years, said President Joni Hanchett.

People living near the general aviation airport off Geyser Road and Rowland Street have been growing unhappier as aviation safety projects over the past 25 years have cleared dense tree growth on the airport property, increasing the amount of airplane noise they hear. A large section of trees just off Geyser and Stone Church roads was removed in 2010, exposing homes that previously were in the woods.

“Right now, since the trees came down, it’s very loud,” said one woman who spoke at the meeting.

“These are people’s lives. These are people’s homes. These are not just numbers,” said John Olenik, who lives in Rowland’s Hollow near the airport.

The airport’s fixed-base operator, however, said a 300-foot extension would increase safety for the small corporate jets that use the airport, without attracting larger planes.

“Three hundred feet makes a big difference,” said Frank Zilka, president of North American Flight Services, which operates the airport under a lease with the county. “It makes a big difference to aircraft coming in in [bad] weather.”

The airport operator could potentially benefit from increased fuel sales if more planes came to the airport, or could carry more weight in fuel before taking off.

The airport has two runways. The main runway, on a southwest-northeast alignment, is 4,700 feet long, having been extended 700 feet in the late 1980s. The other runway, on a southeast-northwest alignment, is 4,000 feet long. The proposals are to extend the longer runway to 5,000 or 5,500 feet.

A 300-foot extension would cost about $2 million, while an 800-foot extension would cost about $6 million, according to engineers’ estimates.

Michael Churchill, master plan update project manager for McFarland-Johnson, the engineering firm doing the work, said three different runway options — the two extension proposals, or doing no new construction — will be presented to the Buildings and Grounds Committee for the committee’s consideration.

“We’re not making any recommendation. We’ll present all the alternatives to the committee,” he said.

Lewza said he will try to prevent a vote to approve any extension. The other committee members could potentially outvote him, even though he is committee chairman.

In addition to the controversial runway extensions, the master plan update is considering such issues as whether to add new hangar space, to reconfigure the taxiways, and make new accommodations for the two glider clubs that use the airport.

None of the major projects will happen unless the Federal Aviation Administration approves them for funding, Churchill said. Improvements could take place over a 20-year period, as the FAA makes funding available.

The master plan update, which was begun in late 2012 and will cost about $360,000, is supposed to be completed this fall.

 
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