SANDPOINT — A dark cloud that has lingered over Sandpoint Airport for several years is finally starting to break up.
The Federal Aviation Administration advised Bonner County commissioners this month that the facility is in “tentative compliance” with the agency and is again eligible for federal airport improvement funding.
The Sandpoint Airport was added to FAA’s non-compliance list in late 2008 because the county granted a perpetual through-the-fence access easement without federal approval and initially did little to resolve the issue.
Its placement on the non-compliance list meant the airport was no longer eligible to receive discretionary and non-discretionary funding from FAA to make improvements or repair vital infrastructure.
The county developed a corrective action plan to bring the airport back into compliance, but initial progress was slow. The pace appeared to pick up following a state transportation study which calculated that the facility contributes $33 million to the local economy.
“I think that got people’s attention — that that’s an economic engine out there,” said Chris Popov, a member of the Sandpoint Airport Advisory Board.
Although some of the issues which knocked the airport out of compliance continue to exist, Popov said the county is restoring its credibility with FAA by making forward progress in resolving them.
“It’s happening, but it’s happening slowly,” Popov said.
The FAA objected to the county’s decision to grant through-the-fence access to SilverWing, a residential fly-in community under development on the west side of the airport. The agency also objected to midfield runway access utilized by SilverWing and Quest Aircraft, which manufactures short takeoff and landing aircraft.
SilverWing advised the county last year that it may sue if officials did not get out ahead of the compliance issue. Quest warned that it was being courted by out-of-state interests to relocate.
The FAA prohibits residential components to public airports, but the agency has agreed to waive the prohibition as long as through-the-fence access points are certified and an access plan developed. The FAA is slated to resume consideration of residential access issue at 77 airports nationwide in 2014.
The midfield access issue remains, although the county has secured a Gem Community grant to identify potential solutions. The FAA has declined to fund the construction of full or partial west-side taxiway because the county owns no ground on that side of the airport.
Popov said the FAA could potentially fund the county’s acquisition of property on the west side, which could justify the development of the taxiway.
Part of the reluctance on the county’s part has been a desire not to disturb the standing access agreements. County officials and west side landowners are in discussions over access fees required by FAA.
Popov and county Commissioner Lewis Rich admit objections to fees persist.
“But everybody’s continuing to talk to each other and they’re trying to work something out,” Popov said.
If the county and landowners cannot ultimately reach an agreement, Popov said a district court judge could be asked to resolve the disagreement.
Rich said the question of whether to charge access fees is out of the county’s hands.
“That’s a mandate by the FAA. It’s not a matter of what the local control wants to do,” Rich said.