January 28, 2013

Biddeford looks to get its airport out of 'limbo'

One option is to close it, but if it stays open it will need maintenance and improvements financed by grants, which come with conditions.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The City Council will discuss the fate of the city's airport Tuesday night at a meeting that the mayor says may be a first step toward moving the airport out of "limbo."

click image to enlarge

The Biddeford Municipal Airport will be the subject of a Biddeford City Council workshop Tuesday night. The mayor also may schedule a public hearing to let residents say what they would like the city to do with the airport.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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In this October 2008 airport, the Biddeford Municipal Airport.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

The Biddeford Municipal Airport has long been a source of contention in the city, where voters in 2008 rejected a proposal to close it.

Supporters say the city has an obligation to maintain the airport, which supports economic development in the region.

Opponents raise concerns about the airport's location near residential neighborhoods and the conditions that come with federal money for improvement projects.

Mayor Alan Casavant said the time has come for the city to come to a resolution about the airport, which has "been in limbo for five or six years."

He scheduled Tuesday's workshop so staff members from the airport and the city could present information "about where the airport is today and what the future might be."

The city could go ahead with maintenance and improvement, or decide to shut it down.

The council tabled a proposal last year to hire a consultant to oversee grant applications and improvements at the airport.

"I think the big stumbling block has always been the past," Casavant said, referring to discussions about the airport that often pitted pilots against residents who live nearby.

The municipal airport, built on Landry Street in the 1930s, now includes a 3,011-foot runway and 30 private hangars. About 40 planes are based at the airport, which has no control tower.

About $150,000 a year is generated from fuel sales, and leases and property taxes on the hangars -- enough to cover the cost of running the airport, said Tom Bryand, the airport's manager.

Bryand said the city must lengthen a safety area at one end of the runway, trim trees in the approach zone and add fencing and lighting to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards. The cost of those and other projects could total $2.3 million, with most of it covered by grants from the FAA and the Maine Department of Transportation.

If the city takes federal money, it must agree to keep the airport open for a certain period of time, Bryand said.

"The funding is available," he said. "The big issue is always the city's indecision to do anything."

Bryand said he relies on $15,000 a year or less from his operating budget for maintenance, which falls short of what is needed.

"I don't necessarily think the city needs to expand the airport, but they at least need to maintain it to current standards," he said. "I would like to see all these deficiencies taken care of."

But City Councilor Richard Rhames, a longtime opponent of the airport, sees it as a relic from a time when the country's leaders thought "every town was going to have one of these." He says the land could be put to better use, perhaps as an extension of the nearby industrial park.

Despite Casavant's decision to schedule the workshop, Rhames said he doesn't believe the city's staff is interested in a discussion about the airport.

"What are we doing pouring resources into 120 acres right next to the industrial park to service what, by most accounts, five or six take-offs and landings a day? I don't get it," he said. "If we take this (FAA money), you're basically committing the city to a 20-year timeline where the city is not sovereign with respect to its own land."

Casavant, who said during his campaign for mayor last fall that the airport is an asset to the city, said the council may make a suggestion about what direction to go with the airport, but no decisions will be made Tuesday.

He may consider scheduling a public hearing to let residents say what they would like the city to do with the airport.

"I look at this (workshop) as phase one, with no objective except to clear the muddied waters," Casavant said.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:


Twitter: grahamgillian

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