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FAA provides millions for county airports

A recent Pahrump Regional Planning Commission appointee spoke out against using federal grant money to build the local airport during public comment at a Nye County Commission meeting in August.

Vince Clark criticized a system that has lavished millions of dollars of Federal Aviation Administration grants on three small, county airports in Beatty, Tonopah and Gabbs. The FAA would pay $17 million of the projected $21 million cost of the new local airport.

Clark expressed concern that cash-strapped Pahrump cannot afford the $4 million local commitment, and federal taxpayers should not have to pay the bill either.

“I know this process has been going on since 1985, a long time before we moved here but I’m unaware of any situation in the past where the voters of this town have been consulted on this issue, whether or not we should build this airport,” Clark said.

Clark noted published reports the airport would help corporate travel for local companies like Front Sight Firearms Training Institute but that accounts for few users. He said relying on fuel taxes to pay off the $4 million bond required by the local sponsor won’t work.

Despite Clark’s concerns, County Commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 19 to approve a memorandum of understanding with the FAA on the conveyance or lease of approximately 650 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. The agreement includes constructing a new public-use, general aviation airport, acquiring rights-of-way for access roads and utilities and construct the roads and utilities.

Although the airport has been in development for years, the FAA noted the town of Pahrump was the original sponsor of the project, but in November 2012 voters elected to discontinue the town board form of government. The FAA prepared a revised agreement in which Nye County and the town of Pahrump agreed to co-sponsor the project, since the town lacks authority after Jan. 5, 2015 to proceed with the airport development.

Gary Hollis, a former county commissioner, said a Pahrump airport would be a gold mine if the area is to have manufacturing.

“Corporate people don’t come in and build a manufacturing plant and drive a car to the plant. They fly in, do their business here in Pahrump and fly back to wherever their home is,” Hollis said. “This is not just Front Sight people, it is not just racetrack people, it’s jobs and manufacturing.”

Regarding the $17 million FAA grant, Hollis said, “if we don’t take it, some other community down the line will take it.”

County Commissioner Donna Cox, who tried to get the Pahrump airport on the November ballot but was too late, said private business should help pay the bill if they will also benefit.

“I don’t have a problem with the airport period, I do have a problem with an airport to supply private businesses, because if those people want an airport they should build it themselves,” Cox said. “This thing has been beat around since 1985. How much longer can we beat it up? Maybe this wasn’t the place to build this, maybe we need to take a look at a better location. I have concerns with it being closer to residential locations.”

The Pahrump Town Board adopted the airport master plan in July 2008. The FAA hired a firm to conduct an environmental impact study in August 2010, a study which is ongoing. Pahrump is contributing $30,000 towards the study, or 6.7 percent of its cost.

Nye County Manager Pam Webster said the county is awaiting the updated resource management plan being prepared by the BLM for Pahrump Valley to find out if they intend to transfer the land. Nye County Planning Director Darrell Lacy said the Pahrump airport has been in every request to the BLM for future disposal, the land was included in an internal administrative draft.

County Commissioner Frank Carbone said the county should be looking for a larger piece of land than 650 acres. Lacy said the BLM resource management plan may include land around the proposed airport for future commercial development. Carbone raised concerns about the soil conditions and financing.

“There is going to be some debt involved. If we continue there is a $4 million bond that is going to have to be levied. I don’t think everybody is aware that is something that is going to have to come forward,” Carbone said. He referred to what he called a good soils report and added, “they recommended in some of the things I read we go to a larger airport with a heavier runway with 100,000-pound airplanes.”

“My opinion is I would think you would want to re-look at this whole thing to see if there’s a better way of going, if the county is going to get involved in something, there may be a direction to go into, rather than a 5,000-foot runway with a 75-foot apron,” Carbone said. “My opinion is a 5,000-foot runway doesn’t help this community. I think something a little bit larger would help.”

Lacy said Nye County will have the possibility of requesting the FAA look at alternatives. Carbone suggested starting over from scratch and looking at the financing, he added the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concerns in the area as well. Lacy said those concerns would be addressed in the EIS, in conjunction with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Holecheck said the cost of the Pahrump Airport dropped from $31 million originally to $21 million, of which the FAA would provide $17 million, leaving a $4 million shortfall.

Charlie Gronda, a former Pahrump town board member who has been working for several years as volunteer airport project director, said the initial $4 million local match could be reduced to $1.6 million if construction of certain amenities such as hangars were postponed. The local match could also be spread out over a few years, he said. The town had plans to use a 2 percent room tax for part of the local matching funds, but no property tax, Gronda said.

Nye County Public Works records show the FAA has granted Nye County $4.7 million in the last five years for projects at Beatty, Tonopah and Gabbs airports, accounting for 95 percent of construction costs during that time.

Work will continue in the next couple of years as the FAA funded $187,500 toward the cost of designing the rehabilitation of a runway at Tonopah Airport.

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