The Silver Bay City Council met Wednesday, June 13, with representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and Minnesota Department of Transportation Department of Aeronautics regarding options for the now shuttered Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport.
MnDOT ordered the airport closed May 31 after a routine inspection found runway conditions had deteriorated to the point of becoming a safety concern for pilots and aircraft. The airport has just five airplanes hangared there and just two owned by Silver Bay residents.
FAA Dakota-Minnesota Airports District Manager Andy Peek and MnDOT Office of Aeronautics Director Cassandra Isackson presented several options for the council to consider: closing the airport permanently; reconstructing the runway pavement; possibly converting it to a grass or gravel runway; or even turning it over to the county or other entity to manage.
Isackson told the board closing the airport is an option. MnDOT has an established process for closing an airport, but such a move could prove costly for the city.
Over the years, Silver Bay has accepted grants totaling more than $2 million from the FAA and MnDOT. The grants also include “grant assurances” from Silver Bay that stipulate the city keeps the airport in good repair for certain amount of time after the grant is awarded.
If the airport is closed, Peek estimates Silver Bay could owe approximately $170,000 based on assurances that haven’t expired yet. Isackson estimated the bill for MnDOT to be around $10,000.
However, the FAA also made a land grant to the airport that includes similar assurances that don’t expire.
The federally obligated land is dedicated to aviation purposes, so Silver Bay would have to repay the fair-market value of the land if it closes the airport. Estimating the fair-market value of the land makes the total owed by the city for closing the airport difficult to ascertain.
Isackson and Peek both said closing the airport could also include other hurdles and costs to the city and its taxpayers.
Councilor Carlene Perfetto asked about the possibility of a township or other municipality taking over management and ownership of the airport since the property lies outside city limits. Isackson said some counties own and manage airports, but it would take a mutual agreement between Silver Bay and Lake County to shift responsibility for the airport away from the city.
Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson said he has approached the county about that possibility twice over the last 15-20 years, but the county wasn’t interested.
Perfetto also asked if there is a possibility of the state taking over responsibility for maintenance while Silver Bay would manage the property. Isackson said state ownership of municipal airports is allowed. The state only owns one airport: Piney Pinecreek Border Airport near Roseau. The airport straddles the Canadian border and local governments can’t enter into the international agreements because owning such a property requires state ownership.
Converting the runway to gravel or grass would require an airport master plan study and could incur significant engineering costs. The city could acquire grant funding for the plan. Funding may not require the grant assurances required by other aviation grants, according to Peek.
Finally, the city could reconstruct the runway, which is estimated at $2.5 million. Peek said Congress passed a $1 billion special appropriation for the FAA. Those funds are primarily for smaller airports in need of improvements. The city could obtain a grant for 100 percent of the cost. The FAA money would come with grant assurance for the estimated life of the runway - about 20 years.
The grant assurances are part of the problem for the council. They require the city to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of a facility only rarely used by Silver Bay taxpayers. Occasionally, the city has had its “arm twisted” to take grants for the facility, according to Johnson, who likened the grant assurances to a “cocaine addiction.”
One of the last grants the city accepted was to build a new arrival departures building, when FAA rules changed and said the old AD building was 20 feet too close to the runway.
“It seems a lot of times the government will come in, whether it’s the state or the feds, and change a regulation and say, ‘Hey, something else is different,’” Councilor Richard DeRosier said.” We’re at year 18 of getting rid of that hook on that $1 million grant and two years before that’s up, they come up and say, ‘Hey, your arrival departure building is 20 feet too close and you need to build a new one. I know you can’t afford to build a new one, but guess what, big brother here will give you $1 million to help do it, but now you’re going to be on the hook to us for another 40 years.’
“That stinks because we now have to pass that burden again onto out citizens and it’s not fair to the community here when two people have planes,” DeRosier said.