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Heber airport runway shift, buffer zones become focus of redesign

One of several display boards at the open house showed the details of the proposal to shift the Heber Valley Airport runway.
Heber Valley Airport Advisory Board
A proposal to shift the Heber Valley Airport runway southwest is the product of a years-long study to redevelop the Heber Valley Airport. After a vote Tuesday, it's now the only redevelopment design under consideration.

The possible future of the Heber Valley Airport got the city council's approval Tuesday, but as council members promised the public, nothing's final yet.

A study of how to upgrade the Heber Valley Airport will move into a new phase following a city council meeting Tuesday.

A redesign that would shift the Heber Valley Airport runway southwest and expand runway safety zones is now the only option Heber City will review.

The city council voted 4 to 1 to narrow down the study to that design, which is the product of years of research and drafting by a redesign committee.

For decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has been in charge of the airport. In 2016, the FAA directed Heber City to plan safety upgrades for the planes that use it. The engineers involved with the plans say the design meets FAA standards.

Many residents of Heber City and greater Wasatch County voiced opinions at Tuesday’s meeting. Comments were sometimes emotional, with several people shouting over council members as they were trying to speak. For some, the vote on Tuesday represented a larger debate over whether the airport should change at all.

Councilman Mike Johnston said that a final decision will come later.

“We didn't even need to vote on this tonight. Our consultants are saying, ‘Hey, here's the options. Which one should we study to see if it's even feasible?’ The decision we're going to get to make in about eight months is, do we do anything? Do we move forward and upgrade and have the FAA fund that, or do we say nothing happens?”

The FAA pays 90% of costs for major projects at the airport like runway improvements, and the state of Utah another 5%. Heber City’s aviation lawyer Peter Kirsch said defying the FAA’s directive could forfeit that federal money and force the city to pay over $50 million during the next 20 years. That’s how long Heber’s current contracts with the federal government last and how long it would be until the city can make its own rules about who can use the airport even if it does break from the FAA.

Johnston suggested sending out a poll with a more precise cost estimate of defying the FAA in the months to come. He said if taxpayers learn how much their wallets would be impacted and say they’d be willing to shoulder that, he may support going against the FAA.

In the past week, Wasatch County and Midway City have offered to share those costs if the airport can shed FAA control. The city council also resolved to have those conversations in the months to come.

Jane McDonald was one of those who called the airport a nuisance and asked the council to prevent more air traffic. She said Russell McDonald, who the airport was originally named after, was her uncle.

“We have a safety problem here. There can be accidents, and I don't want to be one of those accidents. Uncle Russell never planned for those great big planes to come in. I have to stop a conversation that I'm having if that plane goes over because you can't hear anything. This is a very small town, and we do not need a big city airport like Provo in Heber Valley.”

About 10 others gave public comments as well, some backing McDonald’s sentiment and others supporting the airport.

According to Kirsch, the city has no authority to stop any non-commercial planes from operating out of the airport. It services 1200 planes a year right now, and he said it’s projected to service about 400 more jets per year in 20 years’ time regardless of whether it upgrades.

Before the vote, four council members spoke at length about why they supported studying the runway-shift design further. Councilmember Yvonne Barney also explained she voted against it because she didn’t see how it would benefit the community.

As part of the vote, the council also decided to settle litigation with the airport’s fixed base operator, OK3 Air. OK3 is a private company that offers services like fuel and hangar space to planes.

Steve Osit, another airport lawyer for the city, said the settlement would give OK3 an 18-acre parcel of land at the airport to develop on a 50-year lease. The company currently has 19 years left on its 10-acre parcel lease.

The council made clear any legal negotiations should not bind the city to approve the eventual airport master plan.

According to Kirsch, the airport study team will next study where to put buildings and safety zones. Afterward, the city will vote whether to approve the airport master plan.

If the city and FAA both approve that plan, there will be one more step: another study of local impacts, which could take up to two more years.

According to Kirsch, after all the studies, the earliest any construction on the airport could begin is about eight years from now.

A link to view the city council meeting in full is available at heberut.gov.

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