Airport Expansion Sputters in St. Charles County

Sep. 8--ST. CHARLES COUNTY -- Despite St. Charles County's surging business and population growth, it hasn't been full-speed ahead for the two low-lying general-aviation airports in the county's northeast corner.

Political squabbles, pressure from an environmental group opposed to flood-plain development and other issues have blocked plans to expand county-owned Smartt Field or privately owned St. Charles Municipal Airport so they can attract corporate jets.

There's a chance that either or both eventually could shut down, leaving the county with no airport. Meanwhile, the environmental group -- the well-funded Great Rivers Habitat Alliance -- is floating the idea of building a new field for small planes on higher ground in the western part of the county or in Warren or Lincoln counties.

The alliance has offered to pay half the $50,000 cost of hiring a consultant to study the issue and suggested that a three-county study panel be formed. That's being considered by the St. Charles County Council, which last December reversed its earlier approval of County Executive Joe Ortwerth's plan to extend the Smartt runway.

Council Chairman Doug Funderburk says he will meet soon with Wentzville Mayor Paul Lambi on the issue and may consult O'Fallon and St. Peters officials as well.

However, a new airport could be a very long-range solution. The state's aviation administrator, Joe Pestka, says it could take 10 to 15 years to find and acquire the necessary land and win federal regulatory approval.

"That's the crux of the issue," said Greg Prestemon, who heads both the county Economic Development Center and Partners for Progress, an organization of the county's major employers.

"Can we afford to wait ... to have a state-of-the-art facility?"

Still, Prestemon said he also understands the thinking behind studying a western airport, given the rapid business growth there. He said he thinks it will be needed "with or without Smartt Field being expanded."

The county killed a 1982 plan to build a new airport near Foristell because of opposition from nearby residents. Then, in 1998, the Wentzville Airport shut down to make way for a business park.

The county's two remaining airports have been around since the early 1940s, with Smartt once used as a naval air facility.

Smartt is more remote; it's ensconced amid farm fields about nine miles northeast of downtown St. Charles. Municipal is just north of the Highway 370 business corridor and west of New Town at St. Charles, a big residential project under construction.

Despite Municipal's closer-in location, Smartt had more takeoffs and landings last year -- 55,200 to 39,780, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. That's largely because Municipal's runways are in "a marginal condition," said Municipal's manager, Dennis Bampton.

Over the past two years, Smartt also has gotten the most public attention, because of Great Rivers' successful push to get the council to back off the runway extension plan. The group, headed by Adolphus Busch IV of the brewing family, argues that the current proposal -- and a plan to add a runway later -- would spur development in the nearby flood plain.

The group also contends that more air traffic would increase the danger of collisions with birds from a major flyway in the area. Council opponents also say it's too hard to get to.

"If we keep putting money into a loser, it's a bad business plan," said Councilman Joe Brazil of the 2nd District.

Ortwerth and the county's aviation board strongly dispute those points. They say that existing and new businesses closer to 370 would be the ones most likely to take advantage of Smartt's increased capacity.

Over the past month, the council reiterated its decision to kill the project. Ortwerth says he'll try again this fall when he submits his county budget proposal for next year. If Ortwerth fails, Pestka said it's likely that his office and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments -- a regional planning body -- would withdraw $8 million in federal aid set aside for the project.

The council's switch on Smartt prompted one supporter, Dan Foust of the 6th District, to suggest that the county try to sell the facility instead of continuing to subsidize its operation, which is costing taxpayers $125,000 this year.

Meanwhile, Great Rivers members have said the group would consider buying Smartt to shut it down if the county ever wanted to sell. However, they also have said they don't necessarily oppose Smartt's current level of operations.

The situation at Municipal is different. For years St. Charles officials have tried unsuccessfully to buy the 72-acre airport and to improve and annex it. The goal: Use it as a magnet for additional business development.

However, they say the owner, Robert Baudendistel of Clayton, has refused to consider selling unless it's part of a package with a much larger nearby tract -- 1,240 acres -- that he and his family also own. He's also turned down federal grants to update and expand Municipal because he won't agree to a requirement that it stay open 20 years.

Baudendistel could not be reached for comment, but Bampton, who leases Municipal, confirmed that is Baudendistel's position.

Home builder Tom Hughes said he and some potential partners had considered buying the surrounding land for new subdivisions and businesses and then turning the airport over to the city. The plan, he said, would have involved raising land in the 100-year flood plain or erecting levees to protect it.

Hughes, who is now on Great Rivers' board, said he now shares the group's view that it wouldn't be a good idea to develop the flood plain near Municipal.