McCaskill: Airport’s ‘master plan’ could block future economic development

Published 6:59 pm Friday, March 1, 2013

The Decatur County Industrial Air Park off U.S. 27 North — is it primarily for business or for aviation?

That’s the question some local leaders seem to be at odds over, at present.

Last November, Decatur County Commissioners agreed to go ahead with a contract negotiated by the county’s Industrial Development Authority, for an energy company to construct a solar power farm on land near the county’s airport.

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However, according to officials with the Development Authority, there’s been some friction with bringing the project to fruition.

Tradewind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., plans to build a collection of sunlight-collecting arrays on land in the county’s industrial park, near the airport runways. The company will construct the farm on a minimum of 100 acres of land, but hopes to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to build a farm of 200 acres.

Because of the land’s proximity to airport runways, the FAA limits buildings on the land to no more than 10 feet in height — the solar arrays will be eight feet tall.

At Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting, Industrial Development Authority Executive Director Rick McCaskill asked commissioners to consider petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration to modify the airport’s existing “master plan.” McCaskill would like to remove a reference to a grass landing strip that does not currently exist.

The land that the master plan sets aside for a potential future grass strip is an old Bainbridge Air Base runway that has fallen into disrepair, McCaskill said.
Although he said the potential for a grass landing strip does not necessarily conflict with Tradewind’s project, McCaskill views it as in the way of other prospective business.

“The issue we’re having is that the FAA is looking at [the strip] and treating it like a real runway,” McCaskill said. “It is right in the middle of what we thought our developable property was, all the way up to the back side of San Fillipo. That’s where we thought we could put a factory in … all of a sudden, with this in the picture, it ties our hands.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a grass landing strip at the airport, but I’m just saying that where it is — right there — is kind of a disaster if you want to call that an industrial park.”

County Administrator Gary Breedlove said the proposed grass landing strip has been on the airport’s master plan for “some time” and would potentially be used by glider pilots and agricultural pilots.

“Is what you want to do is forego meeting with the airport committee and receiving input from the airport and aviation community, do you want to bypass them and go to the commission,” Breedlove asked McCaskill.

McCaskill said he had been unable to set up a meeting with the “committee,” which is comprised of parties interested in the airport’s use and future.

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” replied Keith Lyle, chairman of the Development Authority. “The airport committee is an ad-hoc committee that is really irrelevant at this point. Because again, we have to remind ourselves that this an airport inside of an industrial park, not the other way around.”

A tense exchange then ensued between McCaskill and Lyle on one side, and Breedlove on the other.

Commissioner Dr. David C. “Butch” Mosely said he didn’t want to create ill will and urged Breedlove to set up a meeting before the Board of Commissioners’ next meeting. On Monday, the Development Authority will meet with the airport committee to discuss the grass landing strip issue. The meeting will take place at the airport’s conference room at 1 p.m.

County Commission Chairman Russell Smith then asked McCaskill for an update on Tradewind’s project.

McCaskill said he had spoken with company officials on Monday and learned of a miscommunication involving the county’s planning department. According to McCaskill, one of Tradewind’s consultants had expressed “anxiety,” due to issues with Decatur County government.

Smith said commissioners had agreed to move forward with the project and did not want to see any “stumbling blocks” placed in its way.

Asked by Breedlove to elaborate, McCaskill said the consultant told him that a county official — Building Official Craig Smith — had incorrectly told the consultant that the project’s location was sited on a flood plain. In addition, McCaskill said the consultant was told there had been “some developers who had tried to site a solar farm there in the past and it was always a ‘no-go.’”
McCaskill said he then spoke with Smith, who stated there had been a misunderstanding.

Breedlove said that “people on the street” had concluded the solar farm project was a “no-go,” because of a realization that the site the company had initially proposed would be “on airport property.”

“The project is not a no-go,” Lyle said. “The situation we have right now is that instead of creating an environment in which the project can move forward, the county’s staff — and its administrator — are creating an environment that is stumbling the project.”

Commissioner Mosely said county leaders should cooperate in a manner that would benefit citizens by bringing new industry and jobs to the county.
“We should project the image that Decatur County is pro-business and that we worked though any stumbling blocks to get this project done,” Mosely said.