Airport Authority Hits Turbulence

Plane owner's complaint of "unjust" treatment prompts Payson Council to focus on airport

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A dispute between the Payson Airport Authority and the owner of a parked glider triggered a stern warning from the feds and an executive session focused on improving communications between the town and the airport.

The town owns the airport but set up a semi-independent authority to run it several years ago.

However, the memo from the Federal Aviation Administration chastised the airport for its handling of a parking dispute with a plane owner, which concluded with a stern reminder to the town that it remains legally responsible for any problems connected to the airport.

The town council huddled with the town attorney in executive session in order to discuss a response to June 10 FAA memo.

The town spun off day-to-day operation of the airport in August 2007, when it approved a lease agreement with the newly created Payson Regional Airport Authority.

The board that took over airport operations at the time promised to keep the council updated on any policy and operations changes, but several council members indicated that communications have been sporadic in the past year.

At the time of the switch, several council members raised questions about whether the town would be legally liable for airport operations and funding but would have inadequate communication or oversight.

The current dispute revolved around a complaint filed by Russ Hustead, with Sky King Soaring, who had been storing his motor glider at the Payson Airport.

Hustead complained that the airport ordered him to move his parked, tied-down aircraft off a paved area and onto an unpaved surface because it allegedly posed a danger to other aircraft.

But Hustead didn't want to park the glider on an unpaved surface and complained to the airport authority and sought to negotiate "more reasonable terms," according to the memo written by Tony Garcia, FAA Airport Compliance Program Manager.

But the airport authority then allegedly banned Hustead from parking his plane at the airport at all.

Garcia asked for a full account of the incident and cited several legal provisions relating to the operation of the airport.

The letter reminded the town council that Payson is legally responsible for the management of the airport, despite the creation of the regional authority.

"Based on Mr. Hustead('s) report, the Town's agent has not been responsible in dealing with Mr. Hustead or disposed to a reasonable compromise.

"We look forward to receiving factual information that explains the Town's actions in dealing with Mr. Hustead and how the town is justifying what appears to be a harsh remedy for dealing with a disagreement."

The legal grounds cited for Garcia's concerns included:

A bar on "unjust discrimination" in making the airport available for public use.

A requirement that any airport tenant should be charged the same rates, fees, rentals or charges and have the same of similar facilities.

The airport cannot give any airport tenant exclusive rights.

But councilors and members of the airport authority who attended declined comment on the case or the executive session.

After the executive session, the council met briefly in public session to direct town staff to develop a proposal for improved oversight and communications between the town and the airport authority.

Several recent issues have underscored the importance of the airport and raised concerns about policy making and communications.

For instance, a recent 220-acre land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and several private landowners has turned the airport area into the next key area for major developments and planning in a town with few parcels available for major developments.

Community Development Director Jerry Owens had been working with the town's planning commission toward developing an updated and more detailed development plan for the area around the airport -- starting with a road realignment and plans for a proposed linear park along a canyon with a spring that feeds a small, year-round riparian area. The private landowners who concluded the land swap had agreed to donate a not-yet-determined parcel for that proposal and open space arrangement.

Moreover, the stripped down capital improvement budget for the upcoming year includes $856,000 to implement the Airport Master plan -- which includes money to make some land purchases for a road and hangar realignment for which the airport had already received -- and spent -- federal grant money. During the discussion about whether to include that project in a strained capital improvement budget that dropped millions of dollars worth a slated street improvements for lack of funding, councilors worried they would have to pay back already spent grant money if they didn't move forward with the promised improvements next year.

Town Manager Debra Galbraith said that the town should be able recover most of the costs of various airport improvements from various federal grants.

However, Garcia's memo pointed out that all of the grants the town has already received for the airport improvement require that the airport abide by various federal requirements, including the non-discrimination, full public access and equal rates and treatment clauses.

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