Houston County Airport’s future in question

By Clay Schuldt
Caledonia Argus


On Nov. 13 The Houston County Board discussed plans for the county airport. Rehabilitation to the entrance road is on the list, and funding for the project is split three ways with the federal government paying 81 percent ($168,354), state paying 4.99 percent ($10,370) and local paying 13.99 percent ($29,076).

FAA and MNDOT representatives were present to address the airport’s future. Evan Barret from Mead & Hunt was also at the meeting to give the board a review of the findings from the Environmental Assessment that had been conducted on the airport earlier in the year.

During the March 6, 2012, meeting Barret gave four alternatives for the airport, with Mead & Hunt recommending the fourth alternative.   This option involves relocating the runway to make the airport “instrument approach” compliant by clearing obstructions.  This requires the acquisition of 57 acres of land, of which 8.5 acres are farm land. The cost is estimated at $3.1 million. The relocated runway would remain at its current length of 3,500 feet.

With that in mind, FAA and MNDOT representatives were available to answer any questions brought up by the board.

Commissioner Steve Schuldt wanted to know the potential costs of shutting down the airport.

Sandy DePottery of the FAA said that each situation was viewed on a case by case basis.  “We’re not in the business of closing airports,” DePottery said. DePottery said it took a community in Ohio five years to complete such action.

Schuldt said he felt that under the current economic situation it might be better to hold off improvements to the airport.

DePottery said that if the airport were to fall too far into disrepair the county could lose funding for the airport.

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said, “Pavement conditions are sufficient currently but it is still in that marginal range. If it falls much farther it will reach that point where there are safety issues.”

According to Pogodzinski, simply seal coating would not solve the problem.

Another alternative would be to mill off the surface of the runway before performing an overlay, which would be a short term solution to fixing the runway.  The mill-overlay was not included in the Environmental Assessment, as it was not a long-term solution for the airport.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski asked why the airport had its instrument approach status removed? Zmyewski compared the removal of this approach option as an unfunded mandate that requires the county to pay for upgrades to recover the instrument approach option. “It kind of seems like a noose around our neck. They’re not going to let us shut it down; the only alternative is to spend more and more money every single year. How do you balance that?”

DePottery said Houston County should never have been awarded an instrument approach in the first place. “There was a disconnect with processes and with the different offices. New approaches were just going and they were not looking at the designs and standards of the airport.  Once we discovered that it was a safety factor, it should happen and that’s why it was taken away.”

DePottery went on to say that it was not necessary for the county to make the improvements and can maintain its current status.

Dale Scobie, a flight instructor from Spring Grove, said that if the board waits until the airport is entirely broken down, the county will have to refund the lease holders, the property tax and fuel tax.  Scobie had concerns that the runway was already breaking down. The airport might not have many years before the mill-overlay was necessary, he said.

Later Scobie commented that in terms of budget, the airport tends to break even.  He pointed out that without the airport Houston County could lose some of its emergency services if medical helicopters have nowhere to land.  “Everyone benefits in ways they don’t see.”

John Benton also commented on the issue, saying that simply getting by had been the attitude of the county for some time. “I think you putting off the inevitable by not biting the bullet prevents it from turning it into an economic engine that it can be,” Benton said.

No long-term decision was made regarding the airport; however, the commissioners agreed to look into the cost of performing a mill-overlay on the runway.


Meth trailer and EAW 

The meth lab trailer formally located on Sunshine Lane has been officially removed and disposed of.

The process of removing the trailer cost Houston County a considerable amount of money that wasn’t in the 2012 budget. The county is continuing its efforts to recover costs from the owners of the trailer through revenue recapture. At this time the owners of the trailer are unable to pay, but any future tax refunds could be seized by Houston County.

In that light, the county will first need to hold a public meeting to adopt new fees to allow for revenue recapture. The public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20 at 9:30 a.m.

And finally, Frank updated the board on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) being conducted by G-Cubed for the Erickson Sand Mine.  Frank has been in contact with several consulting groups to review the EAW as a third party; however, he has found that many of the firms had to refuse due to connections with G-Cubed and other frac sand interests in the area.

“Now-a-days it’s difficult trying to find a consulting firm that doesn’t have a tie in with some other company,” Frank said.

On a positive note, Frank did make contact with one Wisconsin company with no ties to G-Cubed. “They know the frac sand industry, which is good, and they know the issues associated with frac sand industries, which is also good,” he said.

Frank further assured the board that the company in question assured him they had no connection with Minnesota frac sand operations or any of the companies involved.

Commissioner  Zmyewski admitted it’s a fine line to finding a third party consultant with no ties to the issues in Houston County, but with enough knowledge on the subject to adequately perform the third party review.

“We could talk all day about being non-bias,” Commissioner Jack Miller said, “but perception for some people is reality.”

The county continues to review consultant options.