Monticello Airport Plan Comes Crashing Down

Jun. 3--MONTICELLO -- After years of planning a new airport and industrial park northwest of Monticello, at an estimated cost of $10 million, it appears the plan has gone down in flames.

What remains is a community recoiling from the specter of a massive airport project, which some thought might take their land and wreck their rural way of life.

Questions also remain as to why city officials traveled so far down the path toward a goal that has little public support and little chance of receiving the public funds necessary to bring it to fruition.

The plans for the new facility were all but buried last week when officials of tiny Monticello Airport, threatened with closure for safety violations since 2000, agreed to bring it under compliance.

The private facility, on which are based 10 single-engine planes, had been cited for lack of space alongside its runway, a steep grade near the runway and no clear sight line from end to end.

It was the threat of closing the 18-acre facility on the city's southern border that led to plans for a new airport. Ironically, those plans, which have cost $135,000 in local and state funds and untold work hours, led to the decision to renovate the existing airport.

Bob Duncan, manager of the 1,800-acre Kratz family farm, which leases land to Sage Air Inc., operator of Monticello Airport, said the family did not want to take on the financial burden of reconfiguring the airport when the state originally discovered the violations.

However, after the city's site selection study was released two months ago and the Kratz farm was designated as Site B, Duncan reconsidered. He thought it would be better to work on the current airport than possibly lose a much larger parcel to the city.

"I wanted to eliminate the fear of eminent domain," Duncan said.

Fear, anger and concern spread through portions of the Piatt County community after a city council member, Jack Weisenborn, released to the public a site map of the proposed new airport about two months ago.

Weisenborn, a first-term council member, said he did not agree with the cloak of secrecy under which the airport plans were fashioned.

It particularly bothered him when a consultant met with city council members two by two in December, in an apparent attempt to skirt the Illinois Open Meetings Act. The act stipulates that meetings must be public if they involve a majority of a quorum: in Monticello's case, three or more members.

"My understanding is, it is a violation when there is an intent to keep information from the general public," Weisenborn said. "I am concerned about the perception that things are happening behind closed doors that should have been brought out into the open. I want open government."

Weisenborn, who has been vilified by some city leaders for his actions, gave site maps to a community member after they were briefly shown in a Power Point presentation at a March 27 city council meeting.

After copies of the map were circulated through the community, landowners -- afraid the city planned to take their land through eminent domain -- voiced their opposition to the airport. More than 500 signatures were collected on a petition and presented to the city council.

Maryann LeZotte, owner of farmland that would make up much of Site A, the favored site for the new airport, told the city council at the May 22 meeting that she does not intend to sell her land, part of a Centennial Family Farm.

City officials have believed for years they were in the running for about $9.5 million in federal funds, 95 percent of the necessary funding, in the form of a grant through the Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program.

But Chad Oliver, FAA program manager in Chicago, said in an interview Friday that the funding was never guaranteed. The FAA could grant 50 percent or 60 percent, or nothing at all.

The new airport was projected to begin construction some time after 2009.

"The current grant program expires Sept. 30, '07," Oliver said. "Beyond that, the grant funding program is unknown. We don't know what we'll see."

If the 38-year-old Monticello Airport continues to operate, the new facility will not be constructed, said Susan Shea, director of the aeronautics division of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Federal regulations prohibit construction of an airport within a 30-minute drive of a current airport.

Steven Long, state DOT acting bureau chief of aviation safety and engineering, was asked if the state is on board for 2½ percent of the new construction costs, as the city officials believe. Long said there is no state money available for airport construction. An airport construction program was discontinued in 2003.

"Now there is no state/local program," Long said.

Brad Hamilton is project manager for Springfield-based Crawford, Murphy and Tilly, the consulting engineering firm that has guided Monticello through the airport process. It has been paid $135,000 for two studies. It was also to take on an $80,000 environmental study, but the council tabled it April 10.

Hamilton said he did not tell the city he was optimistic about obtaining the funding, but told city officials it would be an uphill climb.

City officials, who were apparently optimistic, pursued the goal of a new airport with the hope of attracting new development to Monticello.

MaryJo Hetrick, the city's economic development director, explained that businesses that might locate in Monticello could have corporate jets, which require long, hardened runways.

"When we first talked about doing an airport, we had talked about doing a business air park around it," she said.

To attract new businesses, the project was expanded from a 240-acre airport to a 600- to 900-acre facility with a business and commercial park, adjacent to 900 acres of annexed farmland.

Several area residents were shocked to hear of the plan.

Clarence and LeAndra Vogelzang, tenant farmers whose land would be at the heart of the airport, said they have lost much sleep worrying about losing their livelihood, home and way of life. They helped form a group to advocate for better government, Monticello Sensible Growth.

With almost all of the landowners at the two sites saying they would not sell their land and several city council members saying they would not employ eminent domain, it is unclear how city officials expected to obtain the land.

But Floyd Allsop, city services director, said he considers eminent domain an option.

"In the back of our minds, that's available," he said. "The point is, this mayor and council is not pro-eminent domain. This city staff is not pro-eminent domain."

Allsop blamed the demise of the project on the city council member who made the site selection map public.

"We kind of had a process we were following," he said. "Unfortunately, someone stepped in and adjusted that process for us. The change or adjustment of the process has created a lot of uncertainty."

Hetrick added: "We were a long way away from presenting it to the public."

Huey Freeman can be reached at hfreeman@herald-review.com or 421-6985.

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