FALCON–Meadow Lake Airport, located about two miles northeast of Falcon, is facing both safety and incompatibility issues from proposed new residential and commercial development nearby.
Seven projects are currently in the development review process within the airport’s area of influence that are raising concerns with both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the owners, the Meadow Lake Airport Association.
Airport manager Dave Elliott told Complete Colorado that both he and the FAA have safety concerns about development off of the ends of the existing and planned runways.
Elliott is most concerned right now with a plan to build homes and commercial space less than 2000 feet off the north end of its primary north-south runway.
Meadowlake Ranch owner Dan Ferguson is proposing a mixed residential, commercial and industrial development on 306 acres of prairie grassland at 12302 Judge Orr Road, on the north side of Highway 24, which is in line with takeoffs to the north.
Elliott says rising terrain to the north, high temperatures that can severely affect after-takeoff climb performance, and visiting pilots unfamiliar with high-altitude airport operations result in aircraft making emergency off-airport landings on the ranch’s property “a couple of times per year.”
These landings usually don’t result in damage or injury and the planes are towed back to the airport. Occasionally an aircraft will be damaged on landing, but so far there have been no deaths or injuries.
Elliott says he doesn’t want to prevent the owners of the ranch from developing their property, but does say that both FAA regulations and state law require El Paso County to restrict development around the airport for a variety of reasons, the most important being the safety of both pilots and people on the ground.
The application for development proposes “low intensity industrial land use” below the runway’s flight path, an adjustment made to the project’s sketch plan after discussions with Elliott.
The problem, says Elliott, is that any structures underneath the departure path will likely result in death or injury in a forced landing. Elliott is requesting county officials restrict that area to open space for safety reasons.
The FAA sent a letter to Craig Dossey, Executive Director of El Paso County’s planning and community development department last October addressing numerous concerns, saying “We recommend El Paso County not approve residential development as proposed and explore alternative uses of this land that better conform with Federal, state and industry recommendations for compatible land uses near airports.”
Meadow Lake Airport has received 23 federal grants worth more than $12 million for improvements as an FAA “reliever airport.”
The FAA controls airspace where planes fly, including approach paths to runways. The FAA says federal regulations known as Part 77 require that the “developer of Meadowlake Ranch must request an airspace analysis of the proposed development.”
Elliott says that while the airport is required as a part of the FAA’s airport improvement program to attempt to work with the governing authority for land use protection, state law puts the burden on the county to meet those standards even if the airport doesn’t make an application for an airport overlay zoning district.
Colorado enacted a law in 1974 requiring that areas around airports must be “administered so as to…avoid danger to public safety and health or to property due to aircraft crashes,” and another enacted in 1991 says counties “shall adopt and enforce, at a minimum, rules and regulations to protect the land areas defined in 14 CFR part 77.”
“In my military career and FAA career when it says ‘shall’ you don’t even get to think about it, that’s mandatory, you have to do that,” said Elliott.
The county has never adopted regulations, or a zoning overlay. It says that the responsibility for driving that process lies with Meadow Lake Airport, and that until completed the county cannot impose land use restrictions for aviation purposes.
Elliott strongly disagrees. “The county has to do land use zoning around the airport to protect the airport and the citizens that are buying property in that area.”
Elliott believes it’s mandatory, and that the county has failed to adopt those rules since the law was enacted.
Elliott has been trying to get a master plan and zoning overlay approved according to FAA requirements for more than two years, but says that the county keep erecting obstacles to completing the process.
“Every time I come in they say there’s something else I have to submit, so I do, and then it happens all over again the next time,” said Elliott.
The county adopted the Falcon/Peyton Small Area Master Plan in 2008. That plan includes a designation of the “Meadow Lake Airport Influence Area” that shows the ranch project well within that area. While master plans are advisory documents not regulations, the county itself has stated that protecting lives and airport operations are priorities.
Meanwhile the county is accepting and processing applications for what the FAA calls “incompatible uses” close to the airport without placing any aviation-related restrictions on projects.
County Planner Nina Ruiz, who is responsible for the ranch’s plan, told Complete Colorado that if the sketch plan is approved by the County Commissioners, the landowner gains vested rights to the approved densities, although not necessarily to the precise location of structures.
The Meadowlake Ranch sketch plan has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.