Monday, July 08, 2013

Special meeting on Warren County Airport draws large crowd, heated comments

GLENS FALLS -- Warren County supervisors fielded hours of questions and comments on spending at the county airport during a special meeting Monday night that drew a standing-room only crowd to Crandall Public Library.

At least 175 people packed a basement meeting room at the library for a special Warren County Board of Supervisors Facilities Committee meeting, most of them clearly against a proposal to lengthen the main runway at the airport in Queensbury.

The meeting ran two hours and only ended when the library closed for the night. The committee plans a second meeting in the coming days, with the date to be determined.

Several of them called for a countywide vote on the proposal to expand the airport's main runway. County Attorney Martin Auffredou said it was unclear whether the issue could be put on the ballot.

"It's not an easy question to answer, but it's something we could look into," Auffredou said.

The committee did not take action on that request, but Glens Falls 1st Ward Supervisor Dan Girard, chairman of the Facilities Committee, said that could be considered by the Board of Supervisors.

Critics questioned the spending, costs in the future, the possibility that the Federal Aviation Administration could handcuff the county if federal funding was accepted and concerns that increased air traffic would affect quality of life.

Speaker after speaker went well over the three-minute limit and had to be cut off 10 or 15 minutes into their commentary. Many were affiliated with Upstate New York Taxpayer Advocates, a group that has come out against the expansion and sought cuts to the airport budget.

Several local business leaders were among them, including Sean Garvey of Garvey Auto Group and Jack Currie of Currie Associates.

Garvey questioned the return on the investment to serve 50 planes based at the airport, while Currie said commercial airliners will not return and pointed out that communities that sought to close airports that took federal funding were kept from doing so.

"When you accept FAA funding, it's not without strings," Currie said.

The economic benefits of an expansion that proponents have touted were also repeatedly questioned. Queensbury resident Kathleen Sonnabend pointed to the Hudson Falls trash plant, new county jail and natural gas cogeneration power plants as mistakes that cost money and didn't raise revenue.

Speakers also sought more information about revenue and budget issues and asked why land around the airport was being purchased around the airport to remove obstructions. (The FAA has ordered it to allow full runway use.)

Many weren't satisfied with the answers they got.

"The taxpayers don't get anything from the airport," Queensbury resident Craig Sweet said.

The commentary was heated at times, as Girard had to stop the meeting at one point to threaten to have people removed for "heckling" pro-airport speaker Brian Straub.

Straub said critics have been led astray by "misinformation" and said the airport has received $10 million in federal funding over the years, money that comes from fees paid by users. The airport provides millions of dollars in economic benefits, he said.

Bolton resident Neil Van Dorsten said the airport debate has become a "political football" and that the money that is being spent is "peanuts" compared to the rest of the county budget.

Taxpayers would be happy to get $8 million in federal funding for $400,000 in county funding for any other project, he said.

Bolton resident John Michaels told the crowd that increasing corporate jet traffic would boost revenue from the airport because fuel sales would increase. A longer runway would allow pilots to fuel up.

"There are so many people who come into that airport who would never know about this county if they landed in Albany," Michaels said. "It will increase safety."

The 5,000-foot runway is scheduled to be expanded 1,000 feet to the south, toward Quaker Road. The project was first approved in 2003, but has come up as newly elected supervisors questioned the need for the work.