HARRISON – The Aug. 28 meeting of the Clare County Airport Committee began with the obligatory approval of agenda and minutes of July 2023. That led into the Airport Manager’s Report, provided by Gale Bensinger who described the final bits of crack sealing application being done on the airport runway. That work had been delayed a bit by the previous week’s rainy weather.
It also was noted that the road commission had knocked down some dead oak trees onto the county easement, and that wood was available to the public to salvage.
When Bensinger added that he could use about 20 yards of black dirt for the northwest corner of the diagonal runway has a hazardous slope, Commissioner Rick Fancon quickly said he could provide it by the next day. Bensinger was quick to add that he could use all he could get, because there were “some nasty holes out there.”
Commissioner Gabe Ambrozaitis, committee chairman, then brought the assemblage up to speed on the status of the runway repair crack sealing work that had been begun by the road commission the previous Monday. He noted attendance by representatives from the Cities of Clare and Harrison, and Gladwin and Midland counties who were there to see the mastic application, and said he believed the vendor was happy with the turnout. Ambrozaitis reported the work went on until the rain started, preventing proper adhesion. That work resumed Wednesday afternoon, and continued Thursday and Friday, finishing up all the product on Saturday. He said that Dewayne Rogers, CCRC managing director, came out with the road commission’s smaller machine to do the little cracks with some excess crack sealer that had been received on a previous purchase and was not needed.
“We had never discussed that,” he said. “So that is purely on the road commission’s benevolence to help us. They used up everything that the county purchased on the runway, and now they’re finishing up the small cracks.”
Ambrozaitis said he also had requested the road commission come in with a grader to remove the berm off the edge of the runway to allow better drainage. Bensinger affirmed it would be a simple drive down, drive back.
“The runway seems to be good,” Ambrozaitis said. “Time will tell, when pilots take off and land, if it truly meets the grade.” He agreed with those in attendance that it’s better [a lot better] than it was, but said the jury would be out until pilot feedback is received, and whether it bought the time needed to find a way to fund necessary upgrades.
It was agreed by all parties that the road commission will receive heartfelt thanks from the Airport Committee for the runway work as well as the trees removal.
Attention was then focused on what Ambrozaitis referred to as “the highlight of the meeting” – the MDOT Bureau of Aeronautics report issued pursuant to its Aug. 3 inspection done by Stephanie Whitinger through use of a drone. The discrepancy listed which is in most urgent need of remedy is the encroachment of trees. That encroachment most notably impinges the state approach surface of 20:1 on Runways 18 and 23. Runway 18 has a 72 ft. tree 1,150 feet from the displaced threshold, and 10 ft. right of the centerline. Runway 23 has a 189 ft. tall tree 3,180 ft from the displaced threshold and 20 feet right of the centerline. It was further explained that the airport’s Basic Utility license had been downgraded to a Provisional license until all the “red” items in the report get corrected. An action plan to address the noted discrepancies has to be in place and submitted to the state by Nov. 30.
Talking about the need to speak with homeowners about pruning/felling trees, Ambrozaitis said that his research had turned up no mention of easements, but he had seen contracts in the Register of Deeds office for properties where the county had made contracts with homeowners to remove trees. Ergo, it had been done in the past, but Ambrozaitis said he had been unable to find any avigation easement. He said choices could include approaching owners to see if they would be willing to sign such an easement: the same concept as running powerline across a property.
Ambrozaitis noted the Bureau of Aeronautics said it would provide the specific parcel locations of the trees to be removed, to enable the county to approach the homeowner and have “that friendly discussion.”
It was explained that the state licensing requirement for state approach surface is the width of the runway, out 5,000 feet. That was shown in the inspection photos with a gold overlay.
Ambrozaitis also said the Aeronautical Code says the county has the right to tell the homeowner to clear those trees, but he would seek confirmation and concurrence from the county attorney that such is still in effect and a valid mechanism.
“This is not adversarial,” he said. “But we do have the legal right.”
When asked if it meant trimming the trees or taking them down, Ambrozaitis said the attorney for the BoA advised they not top trees. Firstly, because it would be unsightly. Secondly, the problem would simply grow back.
“It’s just easier to rip the Band-Aid off and say, ‘Ma’am, Sir, we have got to take that tree down,’ and take it down, and it’s done,” he said.
Then it got complicated. Ambrozaitis noted previous commentary that 80D had the potential still to become a NPIAS [National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems] airport and gain federal funding if the number of planes registered to it increased to 10; it was brought up to code; and if there was commitment to meet the county’s portion of matching funds. However, he said that looking at the next three pages of drone photos of runways, he believed it would not happen.
Ambrozaitis said that was based on the vast number of trees that would have to be removed on Runways 18, 36, 05, 23, 09 and 27. The wider area indicated in with a red overlay, represented the flight path requirement of Federal Aviation Regulations Part 77 which is more restrictive because it’s lower.
Ambrozaitis said that if a plan was created to facilitate a 30-year plan, a long-term plan of talking to homeowners over time and explaining the airport’s intentions – there could be a possibility of avigation easements for NPIAS.
“Then that’s a different story,” he said. “But that is a long, long route. That’s what we face to become a NPIAS airport – all those trees in the red need to be removed.”
Discussion then went to how to improve the soils on the turf runways, via soil samples to determine pH levels as well as nutrient deficiencies and any need for organic amendment. It was decided the soil evaluation, turf improvement work would begin this fall. Again, Rick Fancon offered to donate his tractor, tiller and his time to no-till [drill] plant grass seed.
Ambrozaitis informed that Administrator Lori Phelps had sent letters of intent to apply for grants from Consumers Energy and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development which could provide funds to help finish the 80D Flight Planning Center. That grant application work is yet to be submitted.
The inspection also pointed out the airport’s non-standard runway lighting. Bulb replacement is scheduled for the rotating beacon light, as is replacement of the windsock [purchased, but yet to be installed].
The next New Business item was runway lights, and Ambrozaitis informed that when speaking with the BoA about the inspection report, it was indicated there was still $2 million left for projects this year.
“We immediately raised our hand and said we’d like some of that to come here to replace the airport lights,” he said, adding that he had sent an email that day to Wendy Chen, 80D’s project person at the BoA.
Research provided by Carl Lounsbury showed the possibility of using solar powered lights for all airport needs, as demonstrated at an airport in Florida. The upsides there would be not having to run wiring, and pilots being able to control the lights by radio [increasing/decreasing intensity, as needed].
“We could do all the taxiways,” Ambrozaitis said. “Everything but a PAPI – a red and white combination of lights which allow pilots to know they’re on the proper glide slope.”
Ambrozaitis said he would float the idea of solar lights to Chen, and if it makes more sense and can be enacted quicker, that deficiency could be checked off the list even faster.
He further said the BoA on Aug. 7 had said it would provide an economic impact statement for the airport, as well as a wind analysis which would help in making the decision if one of the runways should be closed, and which one that should be, based on prevailing winds. That would accompany the GPS coordinates of each encroaching tree and ownership of the lots they’re on.
The possibility of solar panel installation was discussed yet again, and again tabled for another day.
Ambrozaitis said he planned to attend the Airport Executives meeting Sept. 12 in Muskegon, and then Airport 101 on Sept. 27 in Midland.
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