By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor
About 60 persons turned out for the open house and public hearing on the environmental assessment study for the proposed Houston County Airport improvement project, which was held March 26 at the County Justice Center.
Persons had the opportunity to review large displays of the four options and discuss those options with representatives from Mead & Hunt, which is the consulting firm that did the study.
Those who wished to speak for or against the project or had questions about the various options signed up before the public hearing and were given three minutes to speak.
The four alternatives
Evan Barrett explained that the county had four alternatives to consider. Those alternatives ranged from doing nothing and having the airport shut down within a few years to reconstructing the runway and either removing or relocating all of the buildings at the airport and one off-airport barn.
Those alternatives and estimated costs were:
• Alternative one- Doing nothing. There would be no land acquisition and the airport would be shut down within a few years. This alternative would come with a price tag of $400,000 for the cost of demolition of the runway and buildings.
• Alternative two- Reconstructing a 3,500 foot runway just northeast of the current runway. This option would not allow for publication of straight-in instrument approach procedure, nor would it eliminate all obstructions for runway access. The total recommended land acquisition/easement would be 21.8 acres, including 1.3 acres of converted farmland. This alternative would meet all federal and state requirements for land use control. The cost for this alternative was estimated at $2.3 million plus land acquisition. This alternative would be a 90 percent federal/10 percent county split.
• Alternative three- Reconstructing a 3,500 foot runway just northeast of the current runway and reinstate straight-in instrument approach procedure. All on-airport buildings and structures and one off-airport barn would either be removed or relocated. A total of 25 trees would either be topped or removed. The total recommended land acquisition/easement would be 46.2 acres with approximately 7.2 acres of converted farmland. This alternative would meet all federal and state requirements for land use control. The cost of this alternative was estimated at $4.5 million plus land acquisition, and would be a 90-10 split between the federal government and the county.
• Alternative four- Reconstructing a 3,500 foot runway just northeast of the current runway and reinstate straight-in instrument approach procedure. The only existing airspace obstruction to be relocated would be the airport beacon. The number of trees removed or topped would be 10. The total recommended land acquisition/easement would be 57 acres with approximately 8.5 acres of converted farmland. This alternative would meet all federal and state requirements for land use control. The cost of this alternative was estimated at $3.1 million plus land acquisition, and would be a 90-10 split between the federal government and the county.
Mead & Hunt recommended the fourth alternative and added that most of the farmland acquired could be leased back to the property owners for ag use.
Vern Fruechte of rural Caledonia said he was in favor of the improvement project. He pointed to the economic pluses that a modern airport could provide for Caledonia and the surrounding area.
Arlyn Frauenkron of rural Houston stated he was concerned with increased taxes if the project went forward. If the county was going to spend money on improvements, there must be a financial return on that investment.
Ron Schmal, of rural Caledonia, feels that having an up-to-date airport is a quality of life issue. He said that the improvements would bring more air traffic to the local airport and could be utilized by area businesses. He also pointed out that without the GPS system emergency helicopter flights wouldn’t be possible.
Thor Kolle of rural Caledonia said he doesn’t fly a plane, but is president of the Friends of the Houston County Airport. He said that organization supports the fourth option and pointed out that the county would only be paying for 10 percent of the cost, while the federal government would pay for the rest.
He later added that if the county decides to do nothing, it will cost the county much more than the $400,000 figure. He said state and federal funds could be a considerable amount more depending on how the FAA would handle the payback.
Arnie Beneke of rural New Albin also supported the proposed improvements. He explained that because of the airport’s location, there are times when FedEx planes cannot fly into La Crosse or Winona because those facilities are fogged in. But they can fly into Caledonia.
Chuck Schulte of Caledonia held up the thick copy of the entire study and asked those attending how many of them had read the entire document. He didn’t get any response. Schulte then said he had read through the entire document and found a number of inaccuracies in the study. He also said he was very concerned about current property taxes in the county and warned that if the county moved forward with the project, taxes would go up.
He also pointed out that when the Caledonia Area Middle/High School was built, the school district could have received a grant to pay for a large wind generator that would have provided electricity for the school. But because the turbine was too high for FAA standards and the proximity of the airport, plans for the wind turbine were scratched. Schulte said he did some checking and found out that the school district spends $180,000 a year for electricity, which wouldn’t have been necessary if not for the airport.
Schulte also said people needed to consider the loss in property taxes if the project was approved, as several of the alternatives required the county acquiring additional land.
Tom Welscher, who owns farmland to the south and west of the airport was not in favor of the project. He brought up the fact that a new building that housed bathrooms that cost more than $200,000 was built a few years ago and would have to be moved if the county moves forward with the project.
Eric Benson of rural Caledonia was the last to speak. Benson and his wife own Benson Technical Works, a company that services aeronautical navigation systems throughout the Midwest.
Benson said a modern airport with a working GPS system is vital to his business. He said they fly out of the airport three to four days a week and they spent more than $50,000 in aviation fuel last year.
Benson added that the money the county receives (approximately $150,000 a year) from the FAA is money that is derived from aviation fuel taxes. He also pointed out that 80 percent of the cost to maintain the airport comes from state money from aviation fuel taxes.
Benson was the last person signed up to speak. County Highway Engineer Brian Pogodzinski then encouraged anyone who had other information and additional statements that they would wish to have on record to bring them to the official recorder and bring them to his office.
Mead & Hunt will consider all the public input, revise and publish the final EA study sometime this summer and a decision will be made of which option to proceed with.