Jack Currie of Queensbury reviews his notes as he makes a statement opposing the proposed extension of a runway at Warren County’s Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport. Currie and about a dozen other people aired their views on the airport’s operation at a special meeting held Monday July 8 at Crandall Library.
For two hours on Monday, a standing-room-only crowd peppered Warren County supervisors with questions and impassioned comments regarding a pending county airport expansion.
About 185 people attended the special meeting of the county Board of Supervisors’ Facilities Committee held July 8 in Crandall Library. The meeting was called in response to lobbying from the locally-based group Upstate New York Taxpayers Advocates.
Most all those offering comments were affiliated with the group and were opposed to a planned $8 million runway extension. The statements by UNYTA members were underscored with applause from the crowd.
The extension, first approved by the county board in 2002 to comply with FAA recommendations, adds 1,000 feet to the main runway’s 5,000-feet length. The project is to be bankrolled with a $7,200 federal grant and $400,000 in state money, leaving $400,000 for local taxpayers to shoulder.
Several citizens called for a public referendum to be held on the project. County Attorney Martin Auffredou said that holding a referendum, if allowable by state law, would be up to a vote of the full county Board of Supervisors.
Jack Currie of Queensbury warned that accepting federal funds would prevent the county from setting its own limits on hours of operation or other restrictions. The county would be forced to meet all FAA requirements or return the grant money, he said, adding that other municipalities that sought to shut down their airports were forced to keep them open for 20 years with the full cost being paid by local taxpayers.
“There are a lot of strings attached to grant money,” Currie said.
But County Airport manager Ross Dubarry said that the runway upgrade was primarily for safety and to boost the facility’s use.
The extension would allow more jets to land — carrying more fuel and larger payload — plus it offered more flexibility in case of an engine failure. Dubarry also said that according to a 2010 state study, one extra jet regularly using the airport would generate $1 million in additional local economic activity, as well as create five jobs.
But Sean Garvey of Garvey Auto Group questioned whether it was wise for the county to spend about $800,000 of local taxpayer money per year on airport shortfalls while the county was $34 million in debt.
While Currie characterized the facility as a “hobby airport” for private pilots, Garvey asked whether it made sense to spend $1 million per year to meet these pilots’ needs.
Several speakers decried the use of tax money for the upgrades, but Brian Straub noted that it was actually users’ fees and flight surcharges that paid for airport improvements. When Straub was jeered by dozens in the crowd, Facilities Committee Chairman Dan Girard — a Glens Falls supervisor — threatened to have the hecklers removed. Straub continued that the runway expansion would provide $90 million in economic benefits for the region.
“It’s smart from an economic point of view,” he said.
Neal VanDorsten of Bolton said that moving forward with the runway extension was ”a no-brainer” considering that it was 95 percent funded by federal and state grants. Any other construction project leveraged so dramatically would prompt local taxpayers to be “hysterical with joy,” he said.
“This issue is noting more than a political football,” VanDorsten added.
But area residents Larry Waiman and Bonnie MacLean said expanding the runway would compromise local quality of life. Waiman spoke of the aircraft noise, and MacLean cited destruction of wetlands and wildlife habitat.
Mike McCabe warned that while an $8 million construction project was being billed by the county as economic stimulus, the money would likely go to out-of-area contractors, with very few local employees.
“To say Warren County would benefit is not accurate,” he said.
Kathleen Sonnabend said that for the decades, county leaders have touted expensive projects as saving taxpayer money or stimulating the economy, but they’ve ended up costing taxpayers plenty. She cited the bicounty trash burn plant, the cogeneration plant and the county jail as examples.
“The county has been making too many bad decisions that the taxpayers have to pay for,” she said. “We have to make sure projects make economic sense.”
But past county Economic Development Corp. chairman John Michaels said the runway extension was indeed reasonable. He said that many well-heeled people who routinely flew into the county airport made considerable investments in the area, and that many of them chose to live here because of the airport’s proximity.
After the meeting, facilities committee chairman Dan Girard said “mob psychology” had been in play.
“This was a matter of politics and electioneering,” he said.
The meeting ended when the library was closed for the night, prompting outcries from the crowd. Although Queensbury supervisor Bill Mason had suggested a follow-up committee meeting to hear more comment, Girard said later that any such meeting should be town-sponsored.
“We heard a lot of statements and accusations, and I respect the fact they disagree,” he said, noting that the full Board of Supervisors had thoroughly examined the issues and had twice voted 19-1 to approve the airport expansion. “But this is not about being bullied, it’s about making good decisions and moving forward with the airport, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”