FAA puts county airport in a tailspin over status

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June 14--HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP -- The Federal Aviation Administration crashed the Ashtabula County Airport Authority's request not to downgrade the county's airport classication.

Yet the county has one more chance to keep the higher status flying.

County commissioners, airport authority members and officials of the FAA's Detroit Airports District Office met Monday at SPIRE Institute to discuss the impasse. The authority wants to maintain the airport's C-2 status, which will ensure the infrastructure necessary to accommodate larger corporate jets, while FAA officials said a B-2 rating better describes the airport's use level.

Brad N. Davidson, an FAA environmental protection specialist, and John L. Mayfield Jr., manager of the Detroit Airports District Office, delivered the agency's decision.

"At this, point in time, you have what I believe is B-2 needs," Davidson said. The classification is based on aircraft wing span and approach speed.

Commissioners and the authority members, however, want to retain the airport's C-2 status so the Denmark Township airstrip will have the capacity to meet anticipated increased demand from up-and-coming economic development ventures.

Dave Smalley, SPIRE Institute director, told FAA officials that his facility will be drawing both U.S. and international students, athletes and their families to athletic competitions, training events and the academy. SPIRE's leadership wants to make sure the county airport can handle private jet traffic that could be generated by these events.

"We look at this as a market we got to be prepared to serve," said David Price, authority member and acting manager. "We vigorously defend the C-2 classification because we think that's a market we need to serve and be prepared to serve."

Larry Laurello of Delta Railroad Construction Inc. and Richard Morrison of Molded Fiber Glass Cos. also spoke about the need for maintaining the airport's C-2 status so future business opportunities would not be constrained.

At the heart of the impasse is a federal grant to rehabilitate the runway. In order to meet federal regulations for a C-2 airport, the authority would have been required to extend its runway safety areas on both the ends and sides of the paved airstrip. Doing so will encroach on more than 12 acres of wetlands, which would have to be mitigated.

The authority hired the engineering firm of Michael Baker and legal counsel Thompson Hine to work out an unprecedented deal with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Under the agreement, wetlands would not have to be created, and the authority would be released from liability. The damage to the wetlands would be handled through credits paid to a wetlands bank.

In the process of reviewing the documentation provided by the authority, the FAA could not find justification for the C-2 classification, which would necessitate more federal investment in the runway project because of the issues involved. Both Davidson and Mayfield spoke of the agency's responsibility to taxpayers by ensuring that the level of investment the FAA makes in a facility is a proper match for its use level.

"We have to manage with integrity," Mayfield said.

He pointed out that if the authority were agree to a B-2 classification, only one-half acre of wetlands would be affected and the runway rehabilitation project could move forward. If the anticipated jet traffic materialized in the future, the airport could apply to change the airport's status to C-2.

The authority members, however, argue that changing the status effectively will ensure that air traffic seeking a C-2-classified airport never will use the county airport because pilots would not want to risk landing at a field not certified for larger jets. Further, the resurfacing project would be done at B-2 thickness specifications, which won't be heavy enough for the traffic. The authority members worry that any future improvements made to the airport with federal money would be restricted to B-2 standards, further hampering the airport's chance of ever having its long-standing C-2 classification restored.

Mayfield agreed to give the authority one more opportunity to make its case for maintaining the C-2 status by submitting documentation that substantiates the speculations made by those whose testified Monday. Mayfield did not give a deadline for receiving the information but said there has been no activity on the grant for 19 months and something needs to happen soon. The authority met afterward to discuss its next step.

"I'm confident we can make a compelling argument," said Dwight Bowden, authority chairman.

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