Airport rule may require federal permitting of private construction in Kenai

A Federal Aviation Administration rule for construction on airports may apply to Kenai businesses beyond the physical bounds of the Kenai Municipal Airport itself.

An FAA rule that went into effect in August 2016 will require construction on airport land to follow the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, under which federally-funded or permitted projects must be examined through a rigorous federal procedure for their effects on the environment. In Kenai, the airport’s wide-ranging land ownership may require this process of businesses that don’t get federal funds or federal permitting.

In his report to the Kenai city council on Wednesday, Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander said he had learned of the new rule in a meeting with FAA representatives last week in Anchorage, which he attended with Kenai Airport Manager Mary Bondurant, Finance Director Terry Eubank, and Public Works Director Sean Wedemeyer.

Ostrander told council members that applying NEPA requirements to all construction on airport land would be “a huge shift from what we’ve seen in the past.”

“We’ll continue to follow that and see how impactful it really is to the city,” Ostrander said.

Wince-Corthell-Bryson, the Kenai-based engineering firm which holds a contract for engineering on the Kenai airport, already goes through the NEPA process for its work because of the federal funding it receives from the FAA. In 2016, this work included a roughly $2 million taxiway renovation — of which $1.9 million was FAA-funded — and replacement of a floatplane pond drainage for $379,643, of which the FAA contributed $355,915.

With the NEPA requirement extended to all construction on Kenai airport land, other business connected to the airport only by the ownership of the land beneath them may be required to go through the same procedure. As of 2015, the Kenai airport legally owned 94 pieces of property throughout the city that had been leased and developed by private business-owners into businesses such as a bowling alley, a car wash, and various stores. This arrangement is the legacy of the military airfield which covered much of present-day Kenai in the 1940s and 50s, and which the FAA granted to Kenai’s municipal government after it was decommissioned. Kenai has since sold or leased much of that land to individuals and businesses that have developed it.

Exactly how the NEPA requirement would be applied to these businesses isn’t completely clear. FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer wrote in an email that “NEPA does not automatically apply to every development.”

“We must review them on a case-by-case basis,” Kenitzer wrote.

Ostrander wrote in an email that the FAA had not yet given specifics of the new policy and that Kenai administrators “are still going to be working with FAA to better understand the regulations and what impacts they may have on the City.”

In an interview following the Wednesday council session, Ostrander gave examples of the new rule that he said FAA staff had given during his meeting with them.

“If you put up a sign on your building, that wouldn’t require a NEPA,” Ostrander said. “If you expand your building, expand your parking lot, those would fall in the category of needing to go through the NEPA process. Which is why when they initially told it to us, our reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s significant.’”

According to Ostrander and Kenitzer, the rule was previously in effect in every state but Alaska.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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