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Airport Board says thanks, but no thanks

August 18, 2011

The Airport Authority said no. They cannot in good conscious prepare a letter of no objection to five wind-tower sites selected by Mid-West Energy within the airport’s three mile traffic area. The vote at last Thursday’s meeting was three to two. The Airport Authority doesn’t have the last say. It is their job to pass on a recommendation, or in this case their objection, to Broken Bow’s Board of Adjustment.
Midwest Energy representative Tom Swierczewski says he believes their concern is unwarranted.
“We’re not going to build an unsafe tower,” he told the Chief following Thursday’s meeting. He said he understands that the board is doing their job, it is their duty to protect their airspace, but that the towers are on the fringes of the three mile zone, and that it comes down to where the three miles start.
Swierczewski said that when the towers were sited, they thought the sites were outside the zone. They took their three mile measurements from the center line of the runway.
He also explained that most other states measure the three mile zone in this manner, Nebraska’s law differs. It measures the three mile traffic zone from the airport’s property line.
“The state adopted this (the policy of measuring the three mile mark from an airport’s property line) because they saw a need to put it into state statute,” said Broken Bow pilot and former Airport Authority member Ace Jungren.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has issued a ‘Determination of No Hazard for Air Navigation’ in reference to the towers in question.
“I cannot support the towers at these locations. We need to protect our airport. I support Broken Bow, but it’s my job to protect our airspace,” said Airport Authority member Gary Geiselman.
The Airport Authority is the Broken Bow Municipal Airport’s governing body.
Swierczewski told the board that Mid-West Energy sited 119 turbines this last spring and now this number is down to 97, exactly the number needed, and that this number includes three of the five towers located within the airports three mile zone. Of the five sites, Swierczewski said it is Mid-West Energy’s intent to build three of those sites in Phase I with construction set to begin in September.
Geiselman asked if Mid-West Energy could shift the locals of the those towers.
“We are out of time to shift location,” Swierczewski said. The number of potential sites dropped when four land owners decided not to participate, and other sites were eliminated because of unsuitability.
“I understand your concern, but I would respectfully request a letter of no objection. We don’t have turbine sites to substitute. Without these towers the project would be problematic.”
Geiselman said that he also respectfully said he felt the board should not approve the turbines. They should not make an exception to the three mile rule in this case.
“Whether or not you have an site is not the problem of the airport board,” said Geiselman, adding that if the turbines were to be built in those locations he was worried about UPS being able to get in and out when the weather sets in, and more importantly he was worried about Life Flight.
“The FAA is going to say OK, and then change the approach minimums,” said Jungren.
When the board was asked, after months of planning and months of meetings, why this was now, all of a sudden, an issue, Airport Authority member Brad Holcomb responded that they thought the FAA was the decision maker. What they did not realize was that the FAA was going to look to the Airport Board to protect its own airspace. The FAA will merely change the how high an airplane has to fly when it approaches the air field.
“We relied on the FAA, and thought they would give us a ruling,” said Holcomb.
Also problematic, said Jungren, was that the county zoning board did not take into account that an airport exists.
“The FAA will say if it’s OK with you, it’s OK with them, and then they will adjust their numbers accordingly. It’s those days when the weather is marginal … those are the days it will get you,” he said, talking about the challenge for inexperienced pilots or those who don’t know the area when the weather sets in, and in the risk of hitting one of the towers.
He talked about how critical this decision is.
“What happens today is going to impact the airport for a long, long time,” he said.
When City Attorney Jason White was asked who has the final say, he explained that there are zoning regulations that apply to the airport, but the airport zoning board hasn’t existed since the 1970s.
This means that the Airport Authority is asked to give a recommendation to the Board of Adjustments, and that it is up to the Board of Adjustments to make the decision.
“It is preferable that this board issues something,” City Administrator Tony Tolstedt recommended.
“You know more about it than anyone else,” added White.
Geiselman made the motion that the Authority issue a letter of objection to the Board of Adjustment on the current placement of the wind turbines within the three mile setback zone. Grant Chapin seconded the motion.
Geiselman, Chapin and Casey Williams voted for the letter of objection, Holcomb and Airport Authority Chairman Dr. Dave Minnick voted against.
“I understand that this is hard on Mid-West Energy, but moving the airport is an even bigger concern,” said Jungren.
“Whose name is going to be on the lawsuit when someone hits the tower” he asked.