Houston County commissioners once again tackled a thorny issue on Nov. 13 - the future of the Houston County Airport.

Fliers, federal and state officials, private authorities, and county staff all weighed in on the subject, while the board edged towards consensus on their course of action.

Evan Barrett of airport consulting firm, Mead & Hunt, reviewed the results of an environmental assessment (EA) study on airport options.

Having served as project manager for the EA, Barrett originally presented the results at a public hearing on March 26. Barrett reminded the board that four alternatives came out of that document, which sought to address three issues.

The deterioration of the current runway, cancellation of straight-in instrument approach, and lack of land control surrounding the facility are where the Houston County Airport has problems, Barrett stated.

"Where do we go from here?" he asked the board. According to Barrett's original report, alternative number one would be to allow the runway to fail and close the airport at a cost of around $400,000, since FAA monies must be repaid.

The second option is to totally rebuild the current runway where it is for an estimated $2.3 million and buy 21.8 acres.

Option three would reconstruct the runway where it is and move existing airport structures plus an off-airport barn and top or remove 25 trees. It would buy up 46.2 acres, and the cost could reach $4.5 million.

The last alternative would shift and rotate the runway slightly while maintaining its current length. Buildings would stay put.

Alternative four would also move the airport beacon, acquire 57 acres, and remove or top 10 trees. Barrett said option four ($3.1 million) was Mead & Hunt's recommendation.

None of the options quoted include the cost of land acquisition or easements, he stated in March.

By widening the primary surface from 250 feet to 500 feet, straight-in GPS instrument approach could be re-established, officials reported. That would include options three and four.

Currently the beacon is active, but only a "circling GPS approach" is allowed, County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski said.

Control of some additional land to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stipulations is incorporated into the second plan, but the airport would remain as-is for instrument landings.

Harris Baker of MnDOT Aeronautics said that his organization considers reclamation of existing runways (mill and overlay) to be cost-effective.

If, however, the county decided to give up the facility, MnDOT "has a kind of a guide for the closure of airports," he added.

With the push to "improve or close," commissioners seemed reluctant to endorse any of Mead & Hunt's options.

Besides the cost, forcible acquisition of additional acres (via eminent domain) has received virtually no support from the board.

"There's a lot of folks in your shoes," FAA representative Sandy DePottey said.

"If we were to close, would we have to reimburse the FAA for all the funds expended by FAA?" Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked.

"Probably, yes," DePottey replied. "We're not in the business of closing airports, and there's not really a cookbook of steps involved. It's a big deal, though. They just closed an airport in Ohio, and it took five years to accomplish that."

Pogodzinski said that FAA funds to buy land always need to be repaid if an airport closes. Other funding reimbursement requirements typically sunset after 20 years, he stated.

When asked why the instrument approach was taken away from the airport, DePottey admitted that an oversight had occurred.

"It shouldn't have been awarded in the first place," she said, "That was a mistake. In the early days of those approaches, there was a different part of FAA that was down in Fort Worth handing out approaches. They didn't bother to look at your airport.

"Now we have a new process, and before they do those approaches, they have to come to my office, and we review your layout plan to make sure that your airport is designed and has the proper clearances to support that function. In the early days, they just put them everywhere."

Current airport structures are within the 500-foot wide path, DePottey reminded the board.

"For me this seems like an unfunded mandate," Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said. "It's kind of like a noose around our necks. You've got an approach, and we're going to pull it away. In order to get it back, you have to spend this amount of money. I have an issue with that. Where would we come up with the money?"

"We're not saying that you have to have that (instrument) approach and that you have to spend all this money," DePottey said.

"You can keep the airport that you have now and just maintain it and be happy as a clam. But if you want to improve the airport, and you want that approach, that's the price tag that is going to go with it."

Barrett said that a mill/overlay (reclamation) of the runway alone would fall somewhere between alternatives one and two.

"The EA looked at long-term solutions," he said. "That is a solution for the short term. You've still got these base issues with your airport in terms of instrument approach procedures."

With proper design, "A mill-overlay should be good for 20 years," Pogodzinski said. "The pavement on the runway is still OK, but it is in that marginal range."

When asked if sealcoating would address the problem, he said that it's useful to extend the life of pavement that's in good shape but does not fix underlying structural deterioration.

Federal funding would pay 90 percent towards a mill/overlay, DePottey said, adding, "The checkbook isn't just sitting open," but with proper planning, reclamation of the current runway is certainly possible.

Federal Airport Entitlement funds send $150,000 per year to Houston County, DePottey said. The county can save up to $600,000 from that source, which is applied to the 90 percent.

If an airport donates those funds towards a large improvement project, the amount that FAA needs to add from a "second source" is that much less, which streamlines the process, Pogodzinski explained later.

The county would still need to provide 10 percent in local matching funds. Depending on the amount of preparation needed on the runway bed, the project could cost anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars all the way to the aforementioned $2.3 million.

Harris agreed with DePottey, adding that Houston County is not on the current list for 2011 state bonding projects, but if bids come in lower than expected on those jobs, $60,000 to $70,000 may become available to help meet remaining (local matching) costs.

Several airport users spoke in favor of making improvements. "I've been around the airport for 25 years," Dale Scobie said.

"The airport pretty much breaks even. It costs a few thousand a year to maintain it, but everybody benefits in ways they don't even see."

Federal and state funds that support the airport come from aviation user fees, not tax dollars, Scobie reminded the board.

"There is a big impact to the county," aviator Eric Benson said. "In 2011 alone, the total economic benefit for Houston County was $314,386. Infrastructure supports jobs. What are we going to do to keep jobs here?"

"Reclamation is where I'd rather be," Schuldt said. "I don't know if I'm in favor of shutting it down. I like having it there, but I can't see doing an expansion right now."

"I'm more in favor of reclamation, but not expansion" Commissioner Teresa Walter said. "I can't see doing an expansion right now."

"Just not now," Schuldt added, "Maybe someday."

No motion to pursue any of the EA alternatives was made, but Schuldt asked Pogodzinski to look into reclamation of the existing runway.

In other airport news, commissioners signed a grant agreement with MnDOT for airport improvements that commissioners approved last February.

Rehabilitation (paving) of the entrance road as well as areas around hangers and taxi lanes are listed on the plan with an estimated project maximum of $207,800.

The breakdown on that total has federal sources paying $168,354, state monies providing $10,370, and local dollars at $29,076.

Those numbers are significantly higher that the February estimate of $85,000.

Pogodzinski said later that asphalt costs came in sharply higher this year, and the removal and replacement of poor soils, which cropped up as work progressed added to the final total.

The county's share was not greatly higher, though. That was originally estimated at $22-23,000.