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Water issues thwart airport growth

As most Archuleta County residents know by now, millions of dollars have gone into renovating Stevens Field over the past five years, with the federal government picking up much of the tab.

Nevertheless, inadequate water pressure precludes further development there, effectively costing county taxpayers significant yearly revenue.

Since 2005, airport improvements include the enlargement of runway 1/19; a new fixed base operations building (FBO), midfield apron and hangars; full perimeter fencing; an interior roadway linking Taxiway Bravo to the FBO; and the addition of a partial parallel taxiway.

To date, enhancements have cost approximately $18 million, with the Federal Aviation Administration covering 95 percent of all except the $2.5 million FBO building, which the county financed over a 10-year period. The state of Colorado and the county each paid 2.5 percent of the balance, with at least one state grant accounting for some of the county’s share.

While incredibly complex, the water pressure issue generally involves insufficient infrastructure to provide necessary water pressure, according to standard firefighting measures found in the 2006 International Fire Code. Though the county adopted the code effective Jan. 1, 2007, it has yet to approve related appendices governing fire-flow requirements, fire apparatus access roads, the handling of hazardous materials and other concerns. Therefore, the county has suspended further building construction at the airport until a viable solution is found.

Meanwhile, a number of private parties have leased individual county-owned plots designed to accommodate personal aircraft hangars, but, for now at least, are unable to build. As a result, the county administration is now grappling with whether to refund monies paid, or allow construction, regardless of limited code compliance.

In a recent phone interview, airport manager Bill McKown said seven vacant hangar spaces are currently under lease along Taxiway Bravo, at an annual baseline price of $760 each. Once developed, lot leases are typically recalculated, based on the actual size of the structure. Due to varying sizes, some lots generate more revenue than others, but collectively, those now leased draw $8,961 to county coffers annually. That’s in addition to the 47 improved lots along Bravo, where hangars have already been built over the years.

While $8,961 doesn’t seem a great deal of money overall, there are another 14 empty lots available along Bravo, in addition to 31 private lots, eight commercial spaces and one large aircraft recovery plot near the new FBO. All are within existing airport property, while the latest Airport Layout Plan shows the potential for another 15 private hangar lots and seven commercial spaces — some as large as 14,000 square feet — just outside the fence.

At once, it becomes apparent that solving the water pressure issue could afford the airport significant annual income by leasing hangar spaces, alone. Of course, the economy and demand would dictate how soon or how much leases would actually earn, but McKown believes the county should include airport expansion in any economic development plan it might consider.

Meanwhile, increasing airport water pressure will not be easy or inexpensive. In fact, inadequate pressure extends well beyond airfield boundaries and encompasses an area along an arc from Stevens Reservoir to the Cloman Industrial Park, the airport, the Knolls subdivision, Piedra Estates and onto U.S. 160.

Relatively small water mains in the area are to blame and, according to utility experts, need either replacement or augmentation with larger parallel lines. While incredibly costly, no one has figured out how to pay for such a project, though Pagosa Fire Protection District Chief Ron Thompson thinks it will ultimately take some sort of voter-approved bond referendum.

“They should have thought of it back when they built the airport,” Thompson said in a recent phone interview. “We need more mains in the area, because the existing one isn’t big enough. The building code says you have to have a certain (water) flow and tells where hydrants should be. The code (and its various appendices) is the standard.”

Thompson referred to the 2006 International Fire Code and its seven appendices. Among other things, the extensive code addresses up-to-date conditions hazardous to life and property, and details use and occupancy of buildings and premises.

When asked whether the county plans to adopt the code’s appendices, Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte said, “At some point, the county will have to acknowledge that it’s going to grow and we have to start meeting generally accepted standards. There’s no way around it.

“Obviously, the fire department would like to see us adopt those appendices, but it’s the BoCC’s (Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners) choice. The question is whether we really want to do that ... the fire department will say this is the standard and there is some truth to that, but we haven’t put it to the commissioners yet, whether we want to adopt the appendices.

Schulte added, “There’s a larger policy question here and it’s a ticklish one. Not adopting the appendices is contrary to what the fire district wants to see.”

Schulte suggested he and county development director Rick Bellis will approach the BoCC soon, in hope of determining its stance on the issue. However, as airport construction is currently at a standstill, adding to the water pressure problem may not be the answer.

“The fire district understands our dilemma,” Schulte offered, “but it’s their job is to extinguish fires. To resolve the matter, we need a serious expenditure of money, but we don’t know where it’s going to come from. Will it (the solution) take several years?

“I don’t think the fire department would agree that because the situation is bad, we should allow others to build with the same risk as existing people have now.”

For now, the county must decide whether it can somehow modify the code to the fire district’s satisfaction — thereby allowing hangar construction — or refund the money tenants with vacant lots have paid. Undeniably, the matter is also a legal issue, and one Schulte intends to discuss with county attorney Todd Starr in the coming days.

In the meantime, Schulte said, “We’ll actually do one of two things. We’ll either go ahead with the refunds, or, and this is the ticklish part, the commissioners will say it’s not our intent to adopt those appendices. We were, sort of, of the belief that we couldn’t build out there, but we might actually permit that.”

chuck@pagosasun.com