Fence still doesn’t fly at airport
It’s 8 feet high with three strands of electrified barbed wire on top.
Its base extends a few feet into the ground.
A fence that winds about two miles up a dirt road from 29 Road and the desert ends abruptly within sight of the runway at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
The entire $4.3 million, federally funded wildlife-fence project with two gates that sever general aviation from the general public may be altered to accommodate the 110 hangar tenants and four businesses behind the gates.
And the costs to change those gates? That money may come from your pocket.
After months of complaints from people affected negatively by the fence, a small group of interested parties is tasked with seeking alternatives to a gate configuration that would make general aviation tenants happy.
One option under consideration by the group — called the security solutions committee — includes a plan that Airport Authority members initially considered but abandoned because it was deemed too costly. It includes fencing off the runway but leaving hangars outside the fence. Past cost estimates ranged from $500,000 to $800,000.
City and county leaders intently await the committee’s findings, and some government officials tentatively said they might be willing to budget taxpayer dollars to help pay for a fence fix that, if approved, would mark the first time local tax dollars would go toward functions at the airport.
“If there was a need to invest some money to get jobs, to get people back to work, I would think that would be something the city would be interested in,” Grand Junction Mayor Tom Kenyon said.
However, leaders first want to hear how much an alternative fence would cost and how it would impact general aviation.
Rick Brainard, a member of the fence committee, said he thinks a fencing alternative may not be as costly as previously anticipated. However, it may pose some unintended consequences.
“Today you drive up and swipe a badge,” said Brainard, vice president of marketing at West Star Aviation. “It’s good for hangar owners but not for business. I’m not convinced that we’re not creating a bigger problem by opening up tenants’ hangars to the public. The last thing you want is to take 10 people, make them happy and make the rest mad.”
Others on the security solutions committee are Collin Fay of the Colorado Flight Center; Steve Wood of CAPCO; Amy Jordan, the airport’s administrative deputy director; and Morgan Hamon, an Airport Authority member.
Airport staff and Airport Authority members have said the fence is needed to comply with regulations of the Transportation Security Administration. Airport Authority members are tasked with securing the airport, and plans to do so are left up to individual airports. Still, plans must receive TSA approval. While the TSA did not require the fence and gate configuration, TSA officials said it is an acceptable security solution.
Posting security guards at the gates to escort people to and from hangars and businesses would cost about $500,000 a year, a price tag Airport Authority members are not willing to pay, they said. Keeping the gates as they are, but leaving them open during daytime hours, also is not feasible according to TSA regulations, they said.
In general, as security is increased at airports (and in this case, the gates have already been closed), taking steps to reduce security measures is not allowed, Grand Junction Regional Airport Director of Aviation Rex Tippetts said.
Driving away business
Hangar owners could have avoided the whole gate fiasco before it occurred by developing a plan to cut off or control access points or doors in each of their hangars. But the plan needed to be coordinated among all hangar owners, not an easy feat to gather such a diverse group of more than 100 hangar owners.
Even if hangar owners managed to present a security plan and have it approved by the TSA, the costs to secure hangars would not have been covered by Federal Aviation Administration dollars, which covered the costs of the current fence.
Brainard said he was surprised when he initially saw the fence plans and how it would cut off his business from the general public. He said he immediately spoke up. West Star Aviation, which serves as the fixed-base operator for general aviation at the airport, set up a meeting with airport staff.
The solution for his company was spending $150,000, which hadn’t been budgeted that year, to block off or badge 27 access points or doors in which a person previously could have walked from the street onto the runway.
“As soon as we saw it, we knew it wasn’t going to work for us,” he said. “We need public access. We felt like we had to protect our business.”
While the impacts of the fence and gates are welcomed by some hangar owners who can access gates without leaving their vehicles, others contend it hinders commerce.
Denis Godfrey, a member of the Commemorative Air Force, said he planned to organize a 1940s, big band-era dance to attract up to 2,200 people in connection with an air show slated at the Grand Junction airport in the fall. However, because of the hassle of the security gates and the tenor between Airport Authority members and staff and general aviation, Godfrey doesn’t think he could get the clearance from the airport to hold the event.
“You’re really rolling the dice with them,” he said. “I’m not willing to take that risk.”
Godfrey said the event would have made a large economic impact, and folks likely would like have come from the Front Range to stay a couple nights in Grand Junction to attend such an event.
Godfrey, of Flywheel Events, helped bring an Aaron Tippin concert to Garfield County Airport in Rifle last year during an air show there. Rifle’s airport does not provide commercial air service.
Dana Brewer, owner of Monument Aircraft Services, said he moved his aircraft repair operation to Mack Mesa Airport because he didn’t want to deal with escorting clients to and from the gates to his hangar at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
Last month, a letter sent by helicopter company Osborne Helicopters to Congressman Scott Tipton cited the gates as a barrier to his company seeking hangar space at the airport.
“Despite nearly purchasing a hangar and building networks of customers in the area, we have been forced to delay our decision to base ourselves in your district because of the direct and indirect effects the new TSA security gate will have on our intended operations,” read a letter, signed by John Osborne, U.S. operations manager of the company. “Not only will the gate make charter flights more difficult, delaying our customers, but the indirect effects — the decimation of general aviation on the airfield — also make the decision unviable. For example, due to the exodus from the airport, demand for hangar space is low, meaning we cannot rent a portion of our hangar to reduce costs. We are also less likely to obtain maintenance work — fixing planes and helicopters — because these aircraft are leaving the airport.”
Airport Authority members said they had not heard from Osborne or his company before receiving the letter.
‘A security facade’
One of the most glaring inadequacies of the wildlife fence is that it ends in the desert without encapsulating anything, so it doesn’t keep out wildlife, but it does keep businesses from operating, tenants said.
On a recent day, motorcycle riders were jumping the road and playing on the adobe hills, just east of the runway.
Having the security gates across the general aviation section seems counterproductive because the airport’s north side remains wide open, Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said.
Acquafresca said he signed off on a proposed wildlife fence for the airport, but the fence that was constructed doesn’t keep wildlife out.
“It is an entirely different story,” he said. “The fence was to protect from wildlife. Of course, it’s not doing that to the north. Part of the airport is unfenced; the wildlife and security fence and the new gate accomplishes nothing.”
The airport is in negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management to have land to the north transferred to the airport and eventually fenced, but it’s unclear how long that process will take. Because of that lag time, the process for securing FAA funds for that portion of the fence has not started.
“Clearly the fence and the gate, other than meeting a regulatory need, it’s a failure,” Acquafresca said. “I fairly regularly hear from critics from the airport facility, staff or board on what’s on the ground. I’m fairly offended that the airport has met its compliance with draconian infrastructure. It’s like the fence and the gate are a security facade.”