Tensions Rise as Saratoga County Airport Eyes Expansion
By Megan Irene Kretz
For Saratoga TODAY
MILTON – At a May 20 public hearing, proposed expansions to the Saratoga County airport were met with heavy opposition. County officials held the meeting to discuss changes to the airport’s master plan.
At the heart of the controversy is the keyword: uncertainty. Even after the meeting, attendees still had no idea about exactly what form the proposed expansion would take; the timetable for expansion; or even if it would occur at all.
The airport is a public space that is managed by North American Flight Services. The company leases space from the County and provides aviation services such as aircraft maintenance, fueling and hangar rentals.
According to Jon Zilka, the business manager for North American Flight Services, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that airports put together a new master plan every ten years. This mandatory process began about a year ago when the County hired the engineering firm, McFarland Johnson, to conduct a top to bottom survey of the airport. McFarland Johnson, which has an office in Saratoga Springs, presented the survey along with data from the past ten tears to the FAA for review. The federal agency then came back with three tiers of recommendations.
The first recommendation would be to do nothing and leave the airport as-is, the second included a 300-foot runway expansion, and the third recommendation detailed an 800-foot runway expansion. In addition to the expansion of the runway, the recommendations include grass runways for gliders, a parallel taxiway and additional storage hangars. Zilka, who is also a member of the County’s Transportation Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), said that the 300-foot expansion is the option most likely to be accepted. “The 800-foot runway lengthening can’t be done, there’s too much of an impact. If you look at the 300-foot lengthening, there’s a minimal impact. We [the TAC] voted on that option because it’s feasible,” he remarked.
Regardless of whether the 300-foot or 800-foot expansion is chosen, the non-profit Gateway House of Peace hospice will be affected. The privately-owned non-profit is housed in the former Red Cross building and began leasing the space from the County in 2011. After three years of renovations, the two-bedroom facility officially opened in April of this year.
President and Founder, Joni Hanchett is concerned about the lack of information she’s received about the potential impact on the facility. “I know that for ourselves and our surrounding neighbors, no one was informed of these plans. The only reason that anyone knew anything is because Milton Town Supervisor, Dan Lewza sent out notices,” Hanchett said. During the public hearing, a consultant reportedly told the non-profit that they’d be relocated, but Hanchett said she has not received any official communication from the County. Hanchett expressed dismay over the timing of the proposed expansion. She remarked that over the past three-years, $150,000 in material donations and countless man-hours had been poured in to the renovation of the Gateway House. Presumably, volunteers were remodeling the facility at the same time the engineering firm was making recommendations to raze it.
In response to these concerns, Zilka remarked that any changes to the airport and surrounding land are not foregone conclusions. “Just because it’s added to the master plan, doesn’t mean it will be done. The FAA will pick and choose over the next decade which projects it will fund. That’s a huge point that people are missing.” Before changes can be eligible for FAA funding, the County Building and Grounds committee and then the County Board of Supervisors must authorize them. If the FAA decides to fund expansion, they will pay for 90 percent of the cost, with the State and County splitting the remaining 10 percent.
Milton Town resident Leann Driscoll attended the public hearing and is concerned about the vagueness of the information provided. She remarked that the maps on display weren’t labeled clearly and it was uncertain which neighborhoods and houses would be affected by runway expansions. She also added that the noise from planes is already very loud and is concerned about the potential for increased airport traffic and lower property values.
However, Zilka alleged that an extra 300 feet would not increase the amount of traffic or plane size. “A 300-foot runway lengthening is not big enough to increase the size of planes that are landing here. All it does is increase safety,” he said. However, a longer runway will allow planes to carry more fuel under current aviation regulations. North American Flight Services, which sells the fuel and the County, which collects the tax, would both stand to benefit from increased sales. It is unclear what the County will do with any additional tax revenue.
As the fruits of her hard labor face an uncertain future, the President and Founder of Gateway House hopes to retain the non-profit’s current location. ‘There’s a lot of love here, a lot of love was put in to this building,” she says. The Saratoga County Building and Grounds Committee is scheduled to discuss the airport at 3 p.m. on Monday, June 9. The meeting will be open to the public.