FAA officials want to cut off federal aid to public airports that sign new so-called "through-the-fence" agreements with real- estate developers and homeowners.
WASHINGTON — Agreements allowing private plane owners with “hangar homes” adjacent to airports to taxi directly from their property onto airport tarmacs risk turning government investments into private perks, a Federal Aviation Administration official said this past week.
“The fundamental distinctions between public-use airports … and private airports have begun to blur,” Catherine Lang, the FAA’s associate administrator for airports, told a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
FAA officials want to cut off federal aid to public airports that sign new so-called “through-the-fence” agreements with real-estate developers and homeowners.
The popularity of hangar homes on property adjacent to small public airports is growing. And so is concern among federal officials that such arrangements can endanger safety and limit the ability of airports to expand and could be a misuse of government money.
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FAA officials have said they have no problem with private airparks that have similar access agreements with homeowners because those airparks don’t receive federal dollars. But publicly owned airports usually rely on the $3.5 billion in grants the FAA makes annually to airports to help pay for new runways, safety equipment and other improvements.
Earlier this month, the FAA updated a policy proposal that grants be cut off to public airports that enter into new agreements. The agency is also looking at whether the existing agreements with homeowners and developers at 72 public airports conflict with the promises the airports made when they accepted government money.
Even if such arrangements are working now, that doesn’t mean they’ll continue to work years or decades from now, Lang said. Experience has shown that proximity of homes to an airport is often an insurmountable obstacle to airport expansion, she said.
The proposal has drawn fire from homeowners, the Experimental Aircraft Association and their congressional supporters who say the problems have been overblown. Access fees from such arrangements, they say, help airports raise money. Having homeowners nearby also adds an extra layer of security, especially at night when airports are closed, they say.
The committee is considering a bill by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., to allow airports to continue to enter into new through-the-fence agreements.
“It should be up to the local community and municipality to make that decision,” Graves said. “If they don’t like them, they don’t have to have them.”
Hangar homes can command prices far exceeding other homes in the same community. For example, in Weld County, Colo., where the median single-family home is $250,600, houses in a subdivision with through-the-fence access to the Erie Municipal Airport sell for as much as $1.1 million.
Problems have included pets, people and private vehicles — including golf carts — wandering through fence openings onto airport tarmacs, including taxiways. Buildings and other structures erected by residents have also interfered with navigational radio signals and efforts to keep planes from coming too close together. Some airports have been unable to make critical safety improvements to taxiways and runways because of limitations resulting from the through-the-fence arrangements.
At the publicly owned Sandpoint Airport in Sandpoint, Idaho, where a developer is building a subdivision of single-family homes, plans call for homeowners to taxi their planes across the midpoint of the airport’s runway before taxiing down the side of the runway in order to get in position for takeoff.
That kind of procedure, called a “back taxi,” is considered by pilots and the FAA to be especially dangerous because pilots on final approach for a landing may not see a plane crossing the runway until it’s too late. The situation is especially risky at small airports like Sandpoint where there are no air traffic controllers to direct planes.
Carol Comer, the Georgia Department of Transportation aviation manager, told the committee a proposed through-the-fence agreement in her state initially called for homes with landscaping that included a significant “water feature” that would have attracted birds.
The FAA has spent millions of dollars helping airports eliminate ponds, vegetation and other features that attract wildlife, to reduce collisions between planes and birds.
The state, which has held 30 meetings since 2006 on the project, was eventually able to persuade the developer to drop the residential complex, she said.