City Council is planning improvements at the Biddeford Municipal Airport. ED PIERCE/Journal Tribune file photo

BIDDEFORD — The City Council is planning new safety projects for the Biddeford Municipal Airport. These airport improvements could take place in the next few years, if a federal grant application for $5 million or more is approved.

Last month, the council approved planning and design work for removing tree limbs and other vegetation that obstructs the runway approach, runway reconstruction, and more. The city’s share of the estimated $550,000 project would be $27,500, or 5 percent of the total. The state will chip in the same amount and the Federal Aviation Administration will pay the remainder, which is 90 percent. The cost of the project could be “significantly less,” Matthew Caron of Gale Associates, Inc. said.

In addition, the council approved applying for a $5.5 million grant to pay for the safety improvements, should they obtain the necessary permits. The 2018 federal Consolidated Appropriations Acts, earmarks $1 billion in discretionary grants to be administered by the FAA, with the FAA grants covering 100 percent of the cost and no local match required.

Safety improvements are key to increasing Business and traffic at the airport which are already on the upswing, airport Manager Kristopher Reynolds said. More tourists use the airport, he said, new businesses have moved in, such as Skydive Coastal Maine, which provides tandem skydiving recreation, and there is now a full-time mechanic at the airport because of the increase in airport operations.

“With your support we can make this airport not only a great asset to the city but incorporate it more into our economic development  plan for the city,” Reynolds told the council.

In addition, he said, safety improvements are needed to meet FAA standards and “to ensure not only the safety of the pilots but also the local community.”

“The FAA says it needs to be done,” Airport Commission Chairman Rick Laverriere said about the improvements.

For decades, all things airport related have been controversial and last month was no different.

One of those who has been a constant critic of the airport is former councilor and current Planning Board member Clement Fleurent.

“There’s no need to cut any trees,” Clement said regarding the proposed removal of vegetative obstructions. “The trees are no problem”

“It’s not a good investment,” he said regarding the airport in general.

Another longtime airport critic and former councilor, and current Conservation Commission member Richard Rhames, said he fears that more investment in the one-runway airport will lead to its expansion.

“The rhetoric about this has been expansion is not what this is about, it’s only about safety,” he said.

However, Rhames said, there is a “push is to spend as much money as possible,” so if there was an interest in repurposing the land for say an industrial park, the cost to pay back the money, which the FAA requires for money it grants within a certain number of years, would be prohibitive.

“First raise the cost … and get ready for a bigger push to come later. … Something’s coming,” Rhames said.

“There are absolutely no plans to expand this runway,” Leverriere countered.

Most councilors were on board with the airport projects. Seven of the eight attending the Aug. 21 meeting voted in favor of both airport order, Councilor Norman Belanger was absent. The lone dissenting vote was Councilor Marc Lessard.

The airport, Lessard said, “is not that an important an issue to me.” However, he questioned the best use of the land.

Would, he asked, a business or industrial park at the site provide more jobs and economic development to the city than the airport? He also asked what would it cost to close the airport and repurpose the land?

In 2008, Biddeford voters overwhelming said no to closing the Biddeford Municipal Airport, 8,064-1,714. At that time, the estimated cost of closure was $3 million.

“The airport was originally developed under a New Deal project by the Maine Emergency Relief Administration, the state division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in a state wide survey of airports by Capt. Harry M. Jones in January 1934” and opened in 1935, according to The Living New Deal website, a website designed to highlight the achievements of President Franklin Delanore Roosevelt’s socalled “New Deal.” The New Deal was designed to put people to work and pull the country out of the “The Great Depression,” an economic collapse lasting from about 1929 to 1933.

— Associate Editor Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324, or [email protected]

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