Forks may sacrifice airport to maintain summer drag racing

FORKS — The City Council will discuss possibly closing the municipal airport after Sen. Patty Murray’s regional director said last week that it may be the best way to preserve summer drag racing.

The council will discuss the idea — along with other options for keeping the West End Thunder races rolling — at its meeting Monday, May 23, set for 7:30 p.m. at 500 E. Division St., with a decision likely in June, Mayor Bryon Monohon said.

“Let your City Council members know what you think,” Monohon said, “and we will do things in the most open, transparent way possible.”

The races, which draw thousands to the West End during weekends in the summer, now use the runways at Forks Municipal Airport, but the Federal Aviation Administration has said the races must relocate after this year’s season.

Kristenè Reeves, Murray’s regional director, told about 60 people in Forks on Thursday that closing the municipal airport to aviation, leaving pilots to use neighboring Quillayute Airport, seemed the most feasible of the options discussed by the FAA and Murray’s office.

Reeves and other staff members have been working with the FAA off and on since 2005 to help negotiate ways to allow West End Thunder to use the airport about five weekends every summer.

An FAA policy prohibits airports with grant obligations to close for non-aviation uses. The city airport has such obligations.

The city of Forks, which owns the airport, and the West End Thunder racing club were granted an exception in August 2006.

That waiver will expire at the end of this year. In 2010, the FAA denied the city’s request for an extension.

The club is allowed to race this year, but if no solution is found, it will have to shut down operations after that, said Cary Bourm, president of West End Thunder.

Closing Forks Municipal Airport to aviation permanently, though the most feasible of the options discussed, wouldn’t solve the problem without a waiver from the FAA, Reeves said.

When land is purchased using FAA Airport Improvement Program money, that land is obligated forever to aviation purposes only.

In 1987, the city of Forks accepted a $500,000 grant from the FAA to purchase land for the airport.

So even if the airport is closed, it cannot be sold and used for other purposes without a special waiver from the FAA.

Of the five ideas discussed between the FAA and Murray’s office, Reeves said the FAA rejected the idea of keeping both airports open and permitting summer racing at the municipal airport — in other words, maintaining the status quo — while Murray’s office told the FAA that halting the summer drag races was not an option.

The two other ideas were to keep both airports open and build a race track elsewhere or to close the Quillayute Airport to aviation and have drag racing there.

In 2007, a Port of Port Angeles study determined it wasn’t financially feasible to build a track on the West End.

Closing Quillayute Airport — which, like the municipal airport, is owned by the city — also is problematic.

Although federal grants to Quillayute Airport don’t obligate it forever, since they were used for improvements rather than buying land, they do mean the airport property can’t be used for any purpose other than aviation for two more decades.

Also, the Quillayute Airport is the federally designated airport for the Forks area, and the previous owner was the Department of Defense, which has the right of first refusal if the property is sold.

Another issue is the condition of the runway there.

“It would take a ton of work to make that runway work because right now, it is just concrete blocks out there,” Bourm said.

Peter Larson, a West End pilot, told the group that the Quillayute Airport “isn’t really a great option for pilots.”

Lyn Bruch, a West End Thunder board member, told Larson he hoped a solution that benefited everyone could be found.

“We don’t want to shut that airport down,” Bruch said.

When the Forks City Council discusses the issue, it will be the day after this season’s first races at the municipal airport Saturday through Sunday, May 22.

“This is a difficult situation, and there won’t be a cookie-cutter solution,” Monohon said, “but I believe we can find one and do the whole community proud.”

________

Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at paige.dickerson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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