Paving a landing strip at Forest Lake’s municipal airport didn’t seem all that controversial until people began debating who should pay for improvements and who would benefit.
“It’s a bone of contention among a majority of taxpayers. It’s been a little heated,” said Ed Eigner, the City Council member who serves on the city’s Airport Commission.
What’s played out in Forest Lake mirrors disputes at other small airports in the metro area, including Lake Elmo and South St. Paul. While circumstances vary, the common thread is that airports often don’t mix comfortably with their neighbors and changes to them don’t come easy.
In Forest Lake, construction has begun on the $3 million paving at Daniel DePonti Airport, 90 percent of which is funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The Airport Commission will split the remainder with hangar owners who each will pay $280 more a year.
Some of the 17 hangar owners protested the extra cost, Eigner said, arguing that it’s an unfair assessment because pilots who don’t own hangars but use the airport won’t be charged, other than to pay fuel fees.
One new Forest Lake resident, Pat Heavirland, told the City Council this month that he wasn’t opposed to paying extra for a paved runway but said the city shouldn’t expect to make a profit off people who fly for fun.
“You have no idea what you’re going to do to this airport, if you do not become a friend of the airport. It is such an asset to the community,” said Heavirland, who plans to build a hangar.
“To say that we’re not a friend of the airport is absolutely, positively unfair,” retorted Council Member Mike Freer. “Balancing it out against the rest of the organization, meaning the city as a whole, versus being a friend of something, the two don’t equate.”
To that, Heavirland said: “It is unfair to put a large portion of maintaining the airport on a very few leaseholders.”
Mayor Stev Stegner assured residents that the city’s financial interest in the airport was to pay for services provided, such as cutting grass and plowing the 2,664-foot runway, which was turf before the paving began.
Eigner said the larger consideration for Forest Lake is whether a paved runway will attract new businesses to boost the city’s tax base. But many residents, he said, object to any money invested in the airport because of budget cuts that have occurred elsewhere.
“The majority of the population is against it or could care less,” he said of the airport paving. “Not that many people can afford to fly. You still have most of the public looking at, ‘You don’t have money to keep a police officer.’ ”
Still, he said, the paving will lead to other benefits, such as improving safety, making the runway usable year-round, increasing the value of existing hangars, and possibly attracting more hangars that produce more revenue to pay for airport maintenance.
Because the runway won’t be extended, “it will not accommodate any jet aircraft,” Eigner said, but it’s expected more pilots will use the airport as a result.
At Lake Elmo Airport, built in 1951, the ongoing controversy centers on an overhaul of the runways now considered obsolete. Several residents in the nearby townships of Baytown and West Lakeland object to the proposed expansion, saying a new 3,500-foot runway would nearly reach their houses.
Objections include noise, safety, interference with emergency vehicles and increased travel times.
In South St. Paul, the municipal airport faces a different problem — nowhere to grow.
Houses, roads and parks surround Fleming Field, and the city in recent years chopped down trees and bought property to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements for a “runway protection zone.” South St. Paul estimated in 2015 that clearing the area would cost $1.65 million, of which the FAA would pay 90 percent.
Similar expansion problems have been reported at other small airports, such as Crystal and Eden Prairie.
Meanwhile, the Forest Lake City Council will decide on hangar rental agreements on Monday. Eigner said of the city-owned airport, inherited in an annexation years ago:
“It’s a losing venture for the city. We’re losing money on the thing because we have to maintain it.”