Payson Keeping Fingers Crossed

Town approves $311,000 study for 13.5-acre airport land purchase hoping FAA will cover the tab

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Payson last week crawled out a little further on the limb of a hoped-for federal grant to buy land near the airport, pausing nervously as the wind picked up.

Specifically, the Payson Town Council approved a $311,000 budget for an environmental assessment of its purchase of 13.5 acres next to the airport — in hopes the federal and state governments will eventually pay back all but $7,500 of that cost.

The vote upped the town’s ante on a gamble that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will eventually resume doling out grants for the expansion of airport facilities, even though Congress this year gave the agency only half the promised money.

The town already approved money to buy 3.25 acres and pay for an option to buy an additional 10.25 acres. The property is part of a land swap involving the U.S. Forest Service. The town wants the land to lease to airport-related businesses and industries in hopes the rent payments will help fund the operations of the group that runs the airport.

The council continued to debate the merits of pleasing the landowners by moving forward with the purchase now, even though the town will run the risk of not getting the money back should the FAA never get the money to fully resume its grant-giving operations.

“Are we going to be able to find the $300,000,” to do the environmental assessment, asked Councilor Ed Blair. The assessment is essential to ultimately getting the FAA grant money.

“The money is in the budget — but we would get it back. The total town cost will be $7,500” if the FAA grant comes through, said Town Public Works Director LaRon Garrett.

Normally, the FAA would pay 95 percent of the cost and the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) would kick in another 2.5 percent.

Councilor Su Connell said “the possibility that ADOT will not get the grant are part of my fears. I’m very hesitant to gamble that all the ducks will fall into a row so we get the money back.”

But Garrett said the town should do the assessment to avoid slowing down the process or even dropping out of the annual funding cycle once the FAA resumes giving grants.

“Every delay here delays getting the money back.”

Previously, the council, on a split vote, approved a $520,000 payment to buy 3.25 acres of land, plus $113,000 for an annual option on the remaining land. The agreement with the landowners could allow the town to recover the annual option cost in the event the FAA ultimately comes up with the money for the purchase.

Councilor Richard Croy argued strongly against that agreement, insisting the town gained no benefit from going forward until it had approval of the federal grant. He said the town could later condemn and acquire the 13.5 acres, once it had the federal grant in hand.

Town planners hope to lure various light industrial developments and airplane-related businesses to set up shop on the 13.5 acres just off Airport Road wedged between the street and the runway. The land is currently zoned for one house for every four acres, although the general plan tags it for eventual industrial development. The owners of the entire 220-acre parcel exchanged with the Forest Service are currently seeking a general plan amendment, to allow apartments and industrial development.

The money for the airport land exchange was one of the few capital spending items to make it into the current year’s budget. A dramatic decline in impact fees related to new construction, along with stagnant sales and property tax revenue trimmed projected town revenues by about 10 percent in the last fiscal year — prompting the wholesale cancellation of capital improvement projects.

However, the airport land purchase remained in the budget, mostly because the council reasoned that spending the town money now would bring in a bounty of federal funds later.

But with the federal government in full crisis mode and the FAA cautiously avoiding any guarantees, Connell last week joined Croy in wanting to stop crawling further out on the limb.

However, the council approved the $311,000 for the environmental assessment on a 5-2 vote.

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