After more than 20 years, a proposed expansion of the Ravalli County Airport took an important step forward last week.
The Ravalli Commission signed a tentative agreement Friday to acquire 126 acres for $3 million from the Mildenberger family. The land acquisition administrative settlement must still be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before a final buy/sell can be completed.
While it’s not a done deal, Commissioner Jeff Burrows said Monday he was hopeful the federal agency would both approve the land acquisition administrative settlement agreement and pay the full cost.
The proposed improvements at the Ravalli County Airport just west of Hamilton is the FAA’s number one rated project in the agency’s northwest region, he said. There were a number of reasons that pushed the Hamilton’s airport project to the top of the list, including over-aged pavement, rising use and the airport’s importance during the summer fire season.
“We’ve been at this so long that a lot of other airports have already seen some kinds of improvement,” Burrows said.
The airport is one of the busiest general aviation facilities in the state. There are 78 aircraft based there, including two jets and seven multi-engine aircraft. Currently, nearly 23,600 aircraft either take off or land there annually.
The county initiated its first effort to develop an airport master plan in 1996, but that ended in 2001 due to a lack of progress.
The next year, the county updated its airport layout plan, which called for a new 5,200-foot-long runway located east of current runway. It took until 2010 for the county to finalize an environmental analysis, but again that plan was put on hold a year later after a majority of commissioners said the proposal did not address the future needs of the airport.
In 2017, the county finalized an environmental assessment that outlined the airport expansion, which was approved by the FAA.
A group called Informing Citizens Against Runway Expansion has fought the runway expansion project for years. It filed a lawsuit in 2017 asking for a review of the FAA’s decision to approve the project. The 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals rejected their petition and the groups opted not to appeal.
The county worked with the Mildenberger family for over a year to come up with the current proposal.
Burrows said he thinks the land acquisition deal has a good chance of being approved.
“We’re optimistic after conversations with the FAA,” he said. “We hope to know by the end of April.”
Normally, the FAA pays 90 percent of the acquisition prices and the local entity picks up the remainder of the cost. Burrows said the FAA currently has a supplemental program in place that could pay for the remaining 10 percent.
If that doesn’t occur, the county will apply for state grant funding that would pay for half of the $30,000.
If the funding package comes together this spring, Burrows said the county will then select engineers and begin the initial steps of the design phase to construct a new 5,200-foot-long by 75-foot-wide runway as well as other improvements.
“If all goes as planned, we could see some physical dirt work next spring or summer,” Burrow said. “Realistically, for the new runway, we’re probably talking 2021.”