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Topsoil removal reveals ongoing town-airport misunderstandings


May 23, 2012
WHITEFIELD — The board of selectmen's general distrust of the Airport Commission's operations at the Mount Washington Regional Airport (MWRA) broke out into the open on Monday night, May 14.

The disposition of a large pile of topsoil with an estimated value of $45,000 brought out issues that apparently have been festering since 2009, and voices were raised during the lengthy discussion.

Professional engineer Carol Niewola, senior aviation planner for NHDOT's Bureau of Aeronautics, was on hand, ready to elaborate on a May 1 letter of explanation she had sent to Ed Stevens of Dalton, the airport manager and MWRA Commission chairman. Airport lessee Dave Bicknell of Twin Mountain, the town's public works chief Shawn White, and Frank Mai of the Whitefield Economic Development Corp. were also on hand.

Niewola said that Commission members had documented that the town was removing surplus topsoil from airport property, using town equipment and personnel. She pointed out that this topsoil had originated as part of an airport improvement project to construct Taxiway C, in which nearly all the monies came from a federal grant. When the board accepted that grant, it agreed to FAA Grant Assurance 25, which controls the use of airport revenue. The document requires, she said, that airport revenue be used either for airport capital or operating costs.

Selectman Duane Hall maintained, however, that when the board had agreed to Assurance 25, a verbal agreement was reached that the sale of any topsoil could offset the town's cost of subsidizing airport operations. Selectman Wendy Hersom was not present, but selectman Mark Lufkin supplied a quorum.

There are three possible resolutions to the issue, Niewola said, that would keep the town of Whitefield, as the airport's owner-sponsor, in compliance with its FAA grant assurance obligations: (1) send any monies from selling topsoil at fair-market value out of the town's General Fund and put it into the dedicated Airport Fund; (2) return the topsoil to the airport; or (3) if the town's investment in the airport over the previous six years meets or exceeds the value of the topsoil, the town may request a reimbursement for its documented investment in the airport. She noted that several other communities have also invested funds into the airport and may be entitled to a share of this reimbursement.

Her letter sounds a cautionary note: "NHDOT encourages the town of Whitefield to abide by its federal obligations regarding the use of airport revenues and stands ready to assist the town in pursuit of this goal. The town's failure to do so may result in an investigation of airport revenue use and imposition of possible penalties." She said the town's obligation is to operate a "safe and serviceable" airport.

The airport manager also supplied copies of its request of July 1983 for the officially authorized release of land at the Whitefield Airport. The request was granted, allowing the town to take advantage of federal Economic Development Administration funds to develop the town's Industrial Park which boasts real-estate-tax-paying business that employ local people.

Other issues were also discussed, including whether or not using federal funds to acquire bigger airport maintenance equipment would or would not save money over time, whether the town should bill the airport for repairing its equipment in the town garage, and whether it really is unsafe for townspeople to park vehicles near the airport's localizer.

The big issue, however, appears to be whether or not it would be in the town's best interest to accept additional federal funds to expand the airport runway to 5,000 feet, adding an additional 1,000 feet to its current length, allowing small jets to land safely and take off.

Proponents believe that both nearby Grand Hotels would benefit. The Mountain View Grand generates a lot of jobs and its employees rent apartments and buy houses in town. Furthermore, in 2011 the hotel paid a total of $226,658 for all properties, according to the town's tax collector. The Omni Mount Washington Hotel favors a longer runway, according to Stevens, but the town of Carroll, where the resort is located, makes no per capita payment to the airport budget.

Hall said that ongoing airport costs as well as plans for future expansion "are being jammed down our throats." Rather than responding to the siren call of Homeland Security that wants to fence the facility, Hall said the Commission should keep a close eye on its costs.

Based on his current understanding of the obligations the town assumes when it accepts federal funds as well as its need to keep accurate and documented accounts, Hall said, "I've learned a lesson; I think we've been led astray."

In other action, the selectmen agreed in answer to any inquiry from a representative of the Gate of Heaven Parish, that if the rectory that is adjacent to St. Matthews Church were put up for sale at a specific asking price, then the town would be interested in considering its purchase. Such a purchase would, however, include one or more public hearings as well as town meeting approval.

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