Officials plan to make yet another approach to landing strip question
McCOOK, Neb. — Groundhog’s Day has come and gone, but members of the Red Willow County Planning Commission may have felt they were part of the 1993 Bill Murray flick that featured the main character who lived the same day over and over again.
The Monday meeting of the planning commission was a re-do of a Feb. 7, 2019 meeting and public hearing. After the Feb. 7 meeting was adjourned, it was subsequently discovered that Tyson Bardsley was not eligible to sit or vote as a member of the Red Willow County Planning Commission because he does not live in Red Willow County. Without Bardsley, there would not have been a quorum to proceed with the meeting, so it was rescheduled for Feb. 24 to start the process over.
The first item on the agenda was to accept Bardsley’s resignation. “I want to make it clear to the public that the planning commission does not recommend who is on the board,” said member Jim Coady. “We just accept them as they come.”
The main topic of re-discussion at Monday’s meeting was to review and discuss proposed zoning regulations for private airports, as well as hold a public hearing about the private airport regulations. The issue has been somewhat of a hot potato; planning board initially recommended approval by county commissioners – county commissioners then sent it back to the planning board after hearing opposition to the proposed changes by members of the public. The “potato” has been kicked on down the road, as the planning commission decided to table the issue until their next meeting (most likely late March) so members can do further research. There’s plenty of research to do.
At issue is a proposed change to the Red Willow County zoning regulations that would add private airstrips to the intent of zoning for airports. Currently, Section 4.09.01 of Red Willow County’s Zoning Resolution adopted in 2012 (available online on the county’s web site) only refers to public airports, regulating Airport Hazard Areas consisting of operation, approach, turning, and transition zones. The proposed change is to add private landing strips to the intent.
Red Willow County has two private landing strips, one belonging to Greg Macy and a second commercial strip belonging to Mike Sides. Sides is also a member of the Red Willow County Planning Commission, but he did not participate as a member of the board in Monday’s meeting. He did provide input during the public hearing, as did about eleven other members of the public.
Sides told the board that the change is needed because the state does not regulate private airports so the county needs to provide protection for private airports. He gave some examples in other parts of Nebraska where wind farms and cell towers posed threats to existing private airports, and without county zoning regulations, nothing could be done to stop them.
Red Willow County’s existing intent statement refers to airports that are registered with the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics, but the state stopped registering private landing strips in 2015, so the proposed change eliminates that reference. Sides claims that the proposed changes are “basically a housekeeping thing, straightening up a few of the words in the intent, the regulations are fine.”
Sides, who has been operating Sides Aerial for 47 years, said, “It all boils down to safety, I do not want to hurt anybody, I don’t want my guys or myself to get hurt, and we do need these regulations. They’re very important … I’ve been flying a long time and I’ve never gotten anybody hurt. I’ve never been hurt and I’d kind of like to finish out my career with that scorecard.”
Several members of the public expressed concern that changing the wording in the regulations would not improve safety, but would create a hardship in enforcement for the county.
Bob Wilcox told commissioners that in Nebraska, it is very rare for a county to address private airstrips. The private strips serve very little traffic and are mainly used by pilots who own the strip and know the hazards of the field. Public airports demand more safety features and setbacks because of the experience levels of the pilots that use them. He said that private fields will always be more risky than public airfields simply because “we cannot create enough space to make them perfectly safe without infringing on all of the neighbors.” He said that the Sides airstrip has some serious hazards such as tall cottonwood trees, railroad tracks, Republican River and Highway 6 & 34, which cannot be regulated through zoning.
“Mike is a very good experienced pilot and can land safely on the field he has.” Wilcox encouraged the board to not change the regulations because he saw it more as of “an inability of neighbors to get along. We need not get involved and waste time in neighbor disputes.”
Boyd Geisler told the commission that as of 2017, the state does not have a full-time employee to regulate private airports and that the only way regulations can be enforced on private airports is to turn them into public airports, which would put many restrictions on not only the neighbors but also highway and railroad traffic.
Tyson Geisler, a neighbor to the Sides airstrip, took issue with the reasoning for the change being public safety. He gave statistics to the board about traffic counts on Highway 6&34, as well as BNSF train traffic. Geisler said that those risks posed much more of a potential threat than a building that was put up on his property. “I would like to state that we are not here to, or ever want to, get Lee Field (the Sides airstrip) shut down. I have no problems with planes flying in and out of there. . . I am solely defending our rights.”
Trevor Taylor, another neighbor to the Sides airstrip, said that making the change in regulation would put Red Willow County in violation of state statutes, court rulings, and in some cases, violates Red Willow County’s own regulations. “Zoning regulations are already in place to protect them (private landing strips) and do not break any other laws or regulations. Keep them the same and do not make Red Willow County taxpayers have to pay any more than they already do.”
Linda Taylor concurred with her son, “Let’s not create more hassle for the poor zoning administrator or the county. Let’s not create more expense for the taxpayers in Red Willow County. Let’s look at what state statutes have said and what state laws have said and leave things the way they are.” When questioned about how the zoning regulations would cost the county money, Taylor told the board that there is a lot of money involved in enforcing regulations that can’t be enforced. She pointed to the example of the state backing away from regulating private airports and the fact that less than five counties in the state address private airport regulations in their zoning.
The 1.5-hour meeting left decision-makers with lots of information. Board members decided that the hot potato was impossible to digest and make an informed decision on Monday night. The issue was tabled until the next meeting.