Saturday, September 19, 2020

Airport tenants sue county

Staff Writer | September 16, 2020 1:07 AM

Several Coeur d'Alene Airport-Pappy Boyington Field hangar owners confronted the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners Tuesday about an ongoing lawsuit regarding airport management and operation issues.

John Huckabay, Jim Walch, and Murdo Cameron spoke at the commissioners' business meeting about access control, fencing, fee increases, and expenses they think negatively impact airport tenants.

Huckabay, a tenant at the airport for about five years, said dissatisfaction with the administration had been slowly building over the last few years. It peaked earlier this summer when airport tenants received a letter regarding the airport's plans to install fences that would isolate airport hangars.

"What it amounts to is you can't easily get to the back of the hangar where the airplane comes out," Huckabay said. "The manager has been known for retribution against us, even putting a couple of concrete blocks on the taxiway so that one side of the hangar couldn't be used to get the airplane onto the runway."

The fencing and access control measures resulted from Federal Aviation Administration guidelines to maintain certification at the airport. The certification allows the airport to support scheduled air carriers' operations, which Huckabay said haven't used the airport in decades.

"The FAA and the airport manager have both stated there is no pending action or demand for this from the FAA. It is a total waste of money, our money," Huckabay said. "Part 139 [of the certification] needs to be dropped from the long-term plan for the airport. It is a vanity project now."

Steven Kjergaard, the Coeur d'Alene Airport-Pappy Boyington Field manager, said the fencing is necessary due to the airport's FAA Part 139 Class 4 classification. The classification permits the Forest Service and Empire Airlines to use airport services, he said.

The Forest Service has had a lease with the airport since 1970 but started ramping up flight operations within the last 10 years, Kjergaard said. Empire Airlines has also used the airport as its headquarters for multiple years.

"Empire Airlines doesn't fly any passenger-operating aircraft, but they do heavy maintenance and fly some of their commercial operations here," Kjergaard said.

To limit the number of people on the airport field, the airport began designing fence layouts and access control.

"We've found delivery people and runways, and we've had reports of damage from people who shouldn't have been on the airport property," Kjergaard said. "We've had quite a few instances."

Huckabay and the tenants also opposed the airport's plan to decouple the two runways at the facility due to the lack of necessity. Huckabay said he has never seen a runway that doesn't touch other than the Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

The decoupling project has been part of an FAA project for over 20 years, Kjergaard said. After the Comair Flight 5191 crash in 2006 killed 41 people, the FAA had determined coupled runways are no longer acceptable. As of September, the Coeur d'Alene Airport-Pappy Boyington Field has started the project's design process, but it won't be completed until 2022 or 2023.

"There have been many other airports in the country that have done the decoupling," Kjergaard said. "Every airport built in World War II had similar runways."

During the presentation, the tenants said they felt these projects weren't in the airport's best interest or its lessors', and was a waste of taxpayer money.

"We would like to have an economical airport," Huckabay said. "There's a lot of people hurting right now, and I hate seeing the county going into foolish projects instead of talking to the people."

Kjergaard said the FAA typically funds 90% of airport projects through grant allocations; the county then finances the remaining 10%.

Another point of contention was an updated lease clause that would require the structures on the property to be gifted to the county upon contract termination. Huckabay believes that would negatively impact the airport's expansion and revenue by driving out potential interest.

"Who wants to spend their money building a hangar at the airport if they are going to lose their lease in 25 years?" Huckabay said. "We know people who have tried to sell their hangars who have now lost their sale because new people are not going to continue to build here."

The present leasing agreement was adapted recently to provide different options at the end of the term. Kjergaard said airport properties are usually leased for 50 years, with renewal options at the 25-year mark. Options include continuing the lease, removal of the construction, or the property is reverted to county holdings.

"There are a couple of options at the end of the 50 years," Kjergaard said. "We can negotiate a new lease, but as an airport, we can't guarantee that location forever. Eventually, we do need that property returned."

Huckabay also raised his issue against the recent 50% increase in the airport's sewer fees. The fee increase brought private hangars up from an average of $37.50 to approximately $54 to $55, Kjergaard said. Huckabay said none of the affected parties were informed or asked for public comment.

"It has been the policy of the county in the past to notify the affected parties of actions individually. There was no reason it should not have happened this time," he said.

Due to a large amount of land and the low number of users, the airport's previous rates did not cover the cost, Kjergaard said. After discussing the fee increase with the airport advisory board and the county commissioners multiple times, Kjergaard said the airport felt action was needed.

"Realistically we have between 50 and 70 users. When you look at what we have to maintain, our density of users, unfortunately, isn't high enough to cover our very large system," Kjergaard said.

Unrelated to the filed lawsuit, among the other various items of their upset, Huckabay and the lessors claimed a current airport staffer had been manufacturing AR-15 style gun parts in the airport and county facility. Kjergaard said this was incorrect, as an employee of the airport had rented out a facility to drill out his receiver with airport equipment.

"There has never been any manufacturing of anything. We had an employee who rented out one of our facilities because they could not do so on their own property," Kjergaard said.

Other discussion points included the purchase and resale of equipment by airport staff and the alleged improper use of county funds. Kjergaard denied these points.

"The above failures of the manager to properly assess the risk and value of projects. He is failing in his fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers," Huckabay said. "There are other areas that show that he is incapable of managing the airport properly."

Both the lawsuit and requested temporary restraining order, which Huckabay said was filed over one month ago, have had no action. The county was scheduled to respond to the lawsuit last week, but so far, Huckabay noted, there had been no conversations. He said the next step would be for the lessors to ask for court judgment based on failure to respond.

Due to the lawsuit's current nature, county commissioners were unable to respond to the lessors' complaints during the Tuesday meeting. It will be up to county legal counsel to determine a response to the lawsuit and comments made by the lessors.

"The Board of Commissioners makes every effort to be responsive when members of the public share questions or concerns about any aspect of our county operations. The concerns that were shared earlier today regarding the airport are no exception and had previously been brought to the board's attention by the Airport Director and staff," said a statement from the board of county commissioners communication manager, Nancy Jones. "Unfortunately, we are not able to provide any additional information until pending litigation is no longer a factor."