Firstair wants to be more than just an airport
MONROE - Firstair Field wants to expand beyond just an airport and open up the land to non-aviation uses, including retail and other private facilities.
The proposal asks the city to change approximately 65 acres to limited open space airport. This land use designation isn’t defined in the city’s comprehensive plan. The proposal creates a definition, which defines the general purpose and permitted uses.
The draft definition protects the airport as an essential public facility but also allows non-aviation uses.
City staff last week presented the draft definition to the Planning Commission. In the coming weeks, the commission will review the request and debate how much the city should let the airport open up to non-aviation uses.
Firstair wants to change the zoning to open up the land to types of businesses that typically aren’t built on airport land in order to keep the airport economically viable, Firstair and the city argue.
The Planning Commission last week was split on how far it should let the airport build non-aviation uses, particularly as to whether or not a hotel could potentially go there.
A hotel could lead the airport away from its traditional use, commissioner Dave Demarest said.
“That would become a hotel for the fairgrounds, plain and simple,” Demarest said.
The city’s comprehensive plan is clear that the first priority is to protect the airport, planning and permitting manager Paul Popelka said. Aviation uses, such as hangars and fueling stations, are not the only uses that need protection. Non-aviation uses can be just as important to the viability of the airport, “the caveat being they don’t have an impact on airport operations,” Popelka said.
“That’s the primary thrust of this (definition), the airport takes precedence,” he said.
Firstair wants to allow retail and other uses that would complement Evergreen Speedway. The proposal also includes runway expansion, flight school, a restaurant, a museum, hangars and other private facilities.
The Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on Firstair’s comprehensive plan amendment for 7 p.m. Monday, March 26 in the City Council’s chambers at City Hall.
Another key feature of the new vision for the airport is a concept Popelka dubbed “special purpose garages,” formerly referred to as “man caves” at a February City Council meeting — a space where people can work on automotive projects and hang out with friends.
Turning away from traditional airport functions created some heartburn for Demarest, who wanted to define just how much of the airport can be used for non-aviation purposes.
While an antique tractor museum, man caves and executive hangars could become a “tremendous” boon for the city, “is that really what we want at the airport?” he said.
“And further, if we really want to protect the airfield as viable and part of this community, we should not water it down,” he said.
If the airport is 55 percent or 49 percent non-aviation, “then there’s a problem and we need to revisit this,” Demarest said.
If the market prefers non-aviation uses, however, then maybe the aviation uses should take a backseat, commissioner Bridgette Tuttle said.
“Why would we be protecting something that isn’t being used?” Tuttle asked.
“Some of these non-aviation uses are essential to the economic viability of the airfield,” Popelka said.
Commission chair Paul Loots suggested the non-aviation uses be limited to a percentage of the square footage at the airport, “where the aviation usage always has to be — maybe not the majority — but a certain size of that whole use, so that … the runway doesn’t become a racetrack or a parking lot.”
The goal is to be just specific enough in the policy to get the intent across, but not so detailed that any creativity is pre-empted, Popelka said.
By STEPHANIE KOSONEN
Published March 7, 2012