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Owls Head airs out airport issues

By Stephen Betts | Apr 03, 2021
Photo by: Stephen Betts Knox County Regional Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw spoke during a March 30 forum organized by the Owls Head Library in advance of the June 1 town meeting.
Owls Head —
Owls Head residents will decide June 1 whether to approve a new agreement with Knox County over future growth at the airport.

In an effort to provide information to residents, the Owls Head Library held an online forum March 30, where representatives from various groups offered views on the issue facing the town.

The 90-minute discussion showed there was still little common ground on the proposed inter-local agreement.

Knox County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether from South Thomaston said the only reason there would be an expansion at the airport would be for safety or aviation rights-of-ways. Meriwether said if the airport does not follow the directives of the Federal Aviation Administration, the county would lose federal grants.

Knox County Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw said the priority for the airport is to provide safe air transportation. In addition, he said, the county wants to take opportunities to earn revenues that will offset any need for local property taxes.

Owls Head resident Ken Wexler argued that residents don't want airport expansion to harm their quality of life.

"No one wants the airport to go away but this is a small rural, residential community," Wexler said.

The airport manager said the airport wants to work with the town, but it needs to be a two-way street. He said the proposed inter-local agreement was a good faith document to keep a relationship with Owls Head.

The airport manager said he had a conversation last year with the town fire chief, who expressed no interest in the county using some of the federal funds to build a new fire station on the airport grounds that would serve the town and airport. The proposal for a new fire station was not a priority of the Airport Public Advisory Committee.

He said the opposition to a new fire station, which he said Owls Head was in need of, is due to the perception that the station would be used as a justification to allow larger jets to land at the airport.

Wexler argued it was not just a perception. He said it "stretches the imagination" that larger jets would not be attracted to use the airport if a fire station were located at the grounds.

Shaw said there is no demand for larger planes at the airport. He said Portland and Bangor airports are too close for Owls Head to become a destination for larger planes.

Cape Air has been running at 25% capacity, Shaw said.

On a busy summer day, the airport manager said 50 to 60 flights arrive in Owls Head. The county projects an annual growth of 3.6% in flights.

Wexler said the county is also trying to use the federal CARES grant it received to leverage a zoning change that would allow eight hangars to be built near Ash Point Drive.

"That means eight more jets near Ash Point Drive," he said.

The airport wants to build eight more hangars and have a 400-foot long paved areas for planes to taxi back and forth using those hangars. The development would be within the fenced in area of the Knox County Regional Airport.

Wexler said at a March 8 Planning Board meeting that the board has maintained the proposed development would be within 250 feet of forested wetlands, and that this was not permissible under town ordinances. He said if the county wants a change, it would need to seek a zone change.

Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw said after the March 8 meeting that the resource protection designation, which the board is using to reject the proposal, was made arbitrarily.

Owls Head Select Board Chair Tom Von Malder said during the March 30 online forum that the Select Board members negotiated the best deal it could with Knox County. He said the board is not endorsing the agreement, but only putting it before voters for them to decide.

The current 20-year inter-local agreement expires June 1 and the county has notified the town it will not renew the old agreement when it ends.

The proposed new agreement and the current inter-local agreement are linked below.

In March 2020, the Knox County airport was notified it would receive $18 million in CARES Act funding, which was designed by the federal government to offer economic stimulus to communities. That amount was more than the largest airports in Maine received from the Federal Aviation Administration as part of the bailout program.

Airport Manager Jeremy Shaw said Feb. 10 of the original $2,067,000 grant amount, there is $13,000 remaining. The majority of the remaining $15.9 million in grants will be spent this construction season.

The projects include replacing an existing crew house with a new building that will house both Penobscot Island Air pilots, while also offering a place for maintenance workers to stay during extended snowstorms; a terminal hangar to handle passengers and freight for the Knox County islands and a solar farm.

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