Commission to consider through-the-fence operations at airport

The Archuleta County Airport Advisory Commission (AAC) met in regular session last week and, among other things, moved to study the feasibility of allowing certain “through-the-fence” operations at Stevens Field.

As defined by the Federal Aviation Administration, “Through the fence operations are those activities permitted by an airport sponsor through an agreement that permits access to the public landing area by independent entities or operators offering an aeronautical activity or to owners of aircraft based on land adjacent to, but not a part of, the airport property. The obligation to make an airport available for the use and benefit of the public does not impose any requirement for the airport sponsor to permit ground access by aircraft from adjacent property.”

More simply, according to the Stevens Field “Airport Minimum Standards,” a through-the-fence operation is, “an aeronautical activity operating from other than Stevens Field airport property, and accessing airport property, through the airport’s fence.”

Without delving into the lengthy definition of “aeronautical activity,” some examples are: air charter operations; air taxi; sightseeing; pilot training; aircraft rental or repair; aerial surveying, advertising or photography; and the sale of aviation petroleum products — particularly fuel. Obviously, all such activities require the movement of aircraft, whereby owners basing planes on land adjacent to airport property would require access to “the public landing area.”

At present, as is stipulated by Article V, Paragraph 96 of the Stevens Field minimum standards, “Through the fence operations are not currently approved for Stevens Field at Archuleta County.”

According to former AAC chairman Elmer Schettler, that statement was included in the revised airport minimum standards reviewed and approved by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners a few years ago. Prior to BoCC approval, the FAA also reviewed and approved the document.

However, at least some members of the AAC now believe allowing certain through-the-fence operations at Stevens Field could enhance the local economic environment by encouraging commercial development near the airport. In fact, the commission claims no commercial development has taken place at the airport in three or four years, since construction of the Fixed Base Operations building.

Although, several aircraft hangars have been constructed recently, with more on the drawing board in the near future. While hangar structures are privately owned, the ground they sit on belongs to the county, thus subjecting them to renewable ground leases.

Nevertheless, a draft statement in last Thursday’s AAC meeting minutes reads, “To assist in proposed commercial development, the Airport Commission needs to investigate the feasibility of public/private partnerships and through the fence operations.”

The statement adds, “The discussion should not be targeted to any specific development, but should explore options of through the fence operations adjacent to the airfield.”

In an apparent attempt to justify that position, the statement also suggests several indirect community benefits might be derived through an income stream associated with such operations, such as the collection of airport access and permit fees. The statement also implied that off-site building permits and property taxes would also contribute to county coffers.

Schettler, however, was more cautious in his assessment.

“In a long conversation that George Barter (former airport manager) and I had with the FAA, the FAA has gotten in trouble in the past, by simply not allowing through-the-fence operations. Therefore, the FAA said it would review, but not necessarily approve, such operations.”

“By allowing through-the-fence operations,” Schettler continued, “it opens up long-term problems, and you may be asking for trouble. They could even affect FAA funding because of airport safety concerns.”

As for the FAA, an Aug. 28, 2006 advisory circular regarding minimum standards for commercial aeronautical activities reads, in part, “ … As a general principal the FAA does not support agreements that grant access to the public landing area by aircraft stored and serviced off-site on adjacent property.”

Still, the AAC moved to create a working group to look into through-the-fence operations and determine guidelines for recommendation to the BoCC.

chuck@pagosasun.com