Tucked away in the Northwest corner of the state, tiny Kentland, Indiana, has an airport. According to AirNav.com, Kentland Municipal Airport is home to 20 airplanes and averages 26 flights per week, although according to FAA records, it only reported 36 flights last month.
This area of Indiana is becoming known for its wind farms. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s most recent wind resource assessment finds that Indiana is one of the top 20 windiest states in the nation. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the area northwest of Lafayette near the Indiana-Illinois state line (where Kentland is located) has the greatest average winds in the state.
Thus, imagine Mark Simons’ surprise when he was told that he could not put a wind farm on his 400-acre farm next to the airport because it would be a hazard to the airport.
“I can see them, but I can’t have them. It’s because of this airport that hardly anyone uses and costs the town money. With turbines, we can help the county, help the city, help more people than the airport is.”
However, since 2001 Kentland Municipal Airport has received more than $1 million in FAA improvement grants. And with that money come strings – chains, more accurately – called Grant Assurances. One of those Grant Assurances states that you will keep the airport open for all aeronautical users. The Mayor of Kentland, Dave Smart, hit the nail on the head when he said that “we can’t just shut it down. The FAA is not in the business of shutting down airports.”
Closing Airport Is Difficult and Expensive
The FAA has stated consistently that it will not allow an airport that has accepted federal funds to close “merely” for economic reasons. Instead, in order to close, or “deactivate” an airport, the owner must show that civil aviation will benefit from the closure. Because of that very high bar, few airports in the United States close. Indeed, it is so difficult that it took a 2005 act of Congress to allow the Rialto Municipal Airport in Rialto, California, to close, and despite that act of Congress, it is remains open today.
Kentland is not alone in trying to weigh the economics of keeping an airport open versus using the airport for other purposes. St. Clair, Missouri, located about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis, wants to close its airport. According to AirNav.com, it has 12 based aircraft and 73 aircraft operations per week. The Mayor has been outspoken in his desire to close the airport and redevelop the property into something that will produce revenue for the city, instead of drain it. However, because of the complexity of trying to close an airport and the expense directly involved in closing an airport, it appears that St. Clair may be abandoning the idea for now.
Likewise, Lorain County, Ohio, made news earlier this year when it said it was going to close Lorain County Regional Airport (87 based aircraft, 117 aircraft operations per day) by not allocating any funds to keep it open. The County stated that it could not afford to keep it open, and allocated only $50,000 instead of the $225,000 for 2010 that the FAA said was needed. The County Administrator and two County employees had talks with the FAA regional office in Chicago and came back chastened. The airport remains open.
How did these towns lose control of their economic futures? By agreeing to accept federal funds from the FAA. See my previous blog post Considering Closing an Airport? The FAA Has Set Many Pitfalls to Trap You. Most of these towns and cities viewed these grants as “free money,” since the money would be spent in the community and it would support the local airport. However, what they did not count on was the mortmain aspect of the FAA Grant Agreements. If you accept the grants for capital improvements at the airport, then the FAA has control for 20 years or the useful life of the capital improvement. If you accept a grant to purchase property for the airport, then the property must always be used for airport purposes or until the FAA releases the airport from that obligation – something it rarely does. Most airport proprietors do not consider these aspects of the Grant Agreements until it is too late and they realize that they are saddled with a White Elephant.
Growing Conflict Between Wind Farms and Aircraft
The other aspect of the Kentland story is the conflict between aircraft/airports and wind farms. Since most wind turbines are taller than the 200 ft threshold for requiring FAA notification of construction under Part 77 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) (14 C.F.R., Part 77), the FAA has become an active participant in the construction of wind farms. Moreover, wind turbines can produce electromagnetic interference that, in some cases, can cause a hazard to aircraft navigation. See my previous blog, Wind Farms Run Into Turbulence with the FAA
However, Part 77 does not give the FAA any enforcement authority. That is, it cannot prohibit the construction of wind turbines that are safety hazards or obstructions. That power is retained by the local authorities. Thus, although the FAA can issue the owner a “Notice of Presumed Hazard,” it cannot tell the owner not to construct the structure. That is why, for example, the Oklahoma legislature recently passed The Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act which restricts the construction of tall structures near public-use airports and incompatible land use by giving the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission authority to regulate certain construction in designated approach areas. In essence, if the FAA says it is a hazard, Oklahoma now says you cannot build it.
Technology eventually could dampen the conflict between wind farms and aircraft, removing the need for restrictions that could be placed on the development of wind farms near airports due to electromagnetic disturbance. From one angle, the radar equipment that airports rely on are now being upgraded so that wind turbines would not interfere with them and wind turbines have been developed that will have not impact on radar.
Wind farms and airports do not mix well. However, it is important to separate the issues that face the construction of wind farms near airports. While the FAA needs to be notified about any such construction, it does not the authority to restrict construction.
The issue of closing airports is one that will probably arise more and more frequently, as airport proprietors assess the value of their airports to their communities. The FAA, who frequently states that its mission is to promote civil aviation, will not give up its discretion willingly.