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Heber residents, officials take a deep dive into airport’s future

About 100 people attended Heber City's airport public meeting in person Monday, and another 30, roughly, joined online.
Ben Lasseter
About 100 people attended Heber City's airport public meeting in person Monday, and another 30, roughly, joined online.

To upgrade, or not to upgrade, the Heber airport? That was the focus of Heber City's "fireside chat" Monday evening.

Heber City gathered local residents Monday to answer questions about the plan to upgrade the Heber Valley Airport, where a panel explained why some changes there need to happen.

About 100 Heber Valley residents and pilots crowded into the Heber City police station conference room for a so-called “fireside chat” — a long-form Q&A about the airport, but not an official public hearing for the record. Over four-plus hours, they asked a panel of city staff and consultants questions like why the airport needs to change and what options are on the table.

City staff say the goal is to do the bare minimum to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s aviation safety requirements, and add community attractions while they’re at it.

But locals said noise has increased in recent years, and many are wary that upgrades will cause more planes to use the airport. That point brought up concerns like the safety at the high school and in homes in flight paths.

David Hutchinson said he’s a pilot whose family has lived in the valley for over 60 years. He was one of several who worried the more the airport upgrades, the more flights will come, and the higher the risk a plane crashes in a residential area.

“Most people's thinking is, the safety of the community is by far more important to us than the safety of pilots and those passengers in the airport,” Hutchinson said. “The question is, as highlighted by 9/11 and the Twin Towers and large aircraft full of fuel and the high school in the direct path of the airport, can that be restricted so the larger planes are not invited?”

Others said they miss the days when less noise came from the skies above the valley.

In response to Hutchinson, Heber City aviation attorney Peter Kirsch said the city has to follow uniform procedures for all planes because of the FAA’s rules and Heber’s existing contracts. As a public use airport, that means it legally can’t restrict what planes land there or charge more for specific types of planes. As a private airport, it does ban commercial planes.

Kirsch also said the city could defy the FAA’s directive to make safety upgrades. However, he said that refusal would be costly and expose the city to lawsuits by the federal government.

He said if Heber refuses to upgrade facilities, the city would most likely lose federal contributions immediately. That means the city would be on the hook for at least 95% of costs for major projects like runway renovations. Currently, it pays 5% for those projects. In some recent years, like 2017, such projects have cost less than $10,000, while in 2016, the amount was over $3 million.

As Kirsch explained, Heber City partnered with the FAA decades ago, and that’s why it has to follow federal guidelines now.

“What the airport is known as is a federally obligated airport, and we can have some really interesting discussions, you know, ask our grandparents, ‘Why did you take the money 75 years ago?’ But they did. That's where we are,” Kirsch said.

Between repaying grants, paying for essential future projects and missing out on grants, Kirsch said breaking from the FAA could put the city and its taxpayers on the hook for $50 million over the next 20 years. And the city would still have to do the FAA’s bidding in other areas like allowing all flights to land for that time.

Some of the dozens who spoke represented concerns in the Town of Daniel, located just south of the airport.

A speaker who identified herself as Shelly said she lived right next to the airport and the proposed redesign would move the planes even closer to her house. She said promises that the city wouldn’t condemn her land were reassuring, but any increase in traffic would affect her deeply.

“I have animals, and I have kids. My animals are giving stillbirths. I can't say that's the airport, but I can tell you I'm getting massive headaches now because of the smell. I didn't have that years ago, but I do now. Why would I want to live there if I'm having a hard time now, if I'm putting my family at risk, so people can come and play and have a great time at the expense of my family. And I think it's pretty sad.”

Daniel Town Councilmember Mary Duggin also chimed in. She said the buffer zones proposed would block the town’s plans to develop a commercial area it’s been planning.

As directed by the Heber City Council, Heber City Manager Matt Brower moderated the meeting. Four of the five council members and Mayor Heidi Franco were present.

A full recording of the meeting is available at heberut.gov.

Tonight, the Heber City Council will vote whether to continue the master plan study for the proposed airport changes. It’s not a final decision on whether to upgrade. It’s a directive to city staff and consultants to examine the impacts of shifting the runway southwest and expanding buffer zones around it.

The meeting’s at 6 p.m. at Heber City Hall, 75 North Main Street. A link to attend the meeting via Zoom can be found here.

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