October 21, 2010
By Dan Namowitz
Move the runway; don’t close the airport. That’s what AOPA and local supporters are telling officials in Huron County, Ohio, where county commissioners have been trying to shut down Norwalk-Huron County Airport and use the land for expansion of a drag-racing enterprise.
The airport, in north-central Ohio, has 22 based aircraft and about 10,000 annual operations. The drag strip, situated just south of Runway 28, hosts up to four national race events a year, and smaller events.
During its biggest racing events the drag strip has traffic-control problems, with only two- lane roads available to handle the many thousands of fans who attend. In past years, the race park has used portions of the airport to address traffic congestion. The park has also established a sand trap within the Runway Safety Area in case a dragster overshoots the end of the drag strip.
The racing strip owner, Summit Motorsports Park, wants Huron County to close the airport and let it buy the land. The owner hopes to expand the operation to include a hotel, possibly an oval track, and other amenities. For next year’s racing, the facility seeks use of the runway, and temporary closing of the airport, for up to five days. That proposal is under consideration by the airport authority. The FAA would also have to approve.
Officials of the FAA's Detroit Airport District Office met with the Huron County Airport Authority in early October to discuss the closure request, and reminded the local officials of their obligations under the terms of the contract that provided federal airport funding. Two of the three county commissioners attended. Despite what they were told, they still believe that they can close the airport, pay back the grants and sell the property.
“A little more than half of the current grant obligations are for land purchased to develop the airport. Under FAA policy that obligates the entire airport in perpetuity,” explained John Collins, AOPA manager of airport policy. Since 1985 the airport has accepted more than $1 million in federal aid, he said. Of that, $486,502 was spent to acquire land for the airport since 2003. That’s close to half of the $989,283 considered to be current grants.
Working with Airport Support Network volunteer Debbie Wagner and other local pilots and supporters, AOPA sent a letter to the county commissioners, strenuously objecting to the proposed closing. The letter urged that the raceway and the airport be seen as compatible attractions for Huron County.
Other organizations opposed to shutting down the airport include the Ohio Aviation Association and the newly formed Friends of the Huron County Airport support group.
“While the FAA has a process in place that allows an airport sponsor to petition the Associate Administrator of Airports for release from the grant obligations, the FAA is not interested in allowing publicly owned, public-use airports to close,” Collins wrote in the Oct. 19 letter to County Commissioners Gary W. Bauer, Mike Adelman, and Larry J. Wilcox.
To underscore the FAA’s policy on airports closings, Collins provided copies of correspondence between the FAA and local sponsors who petitioned to close airports in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Bakersfield, Calif. “In both cases and in other examples as close as the Elyria-Lorain County Airport, the FAA is adamant that federally obligated airports will remain open,” Collins wrote.
The current airport layout plan depicts a future shifting of the 4,210-foot-long Runway 10-28 to the west. That would better accommodate the drag strip, and provide safety for airport and drag strip users. “That is the plan the county commissioners should be working on,” Collins said.
AOPA will continue to oppose closing the airport, and is calling on the county’s elected representatives to “understand their contractual obligations with the FAA,” Collins said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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