Far more people submitted comments opposing a request for a conditional use permit to allow an airstrip in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area than wrote in support of the request.
Custer County Planning and Zoning Commission members are reviewing about 600 written comments after hearing several hours of comment delivered at a public hearing. Commission members said they will render a decision about the permit at their May 6 meeting.
Michael Boren of Stanley and his daughter Amanda Boren of Salt Lake City have asked for a conditional use permit at their Hell Roaring Ranch on Idaho Highway 75 near Stanley. The Borens have asked the county to designate an airstrip they use in a pasture as a county airstrip which would give it a public service facility designation so it could be listed on aeronautic maps. That would allow emergency landings, both for medical transportation and in the event a plane experienced mechanical difficulties.
Twice as many of the written comments oppose the request as support it. A majority of the letters of support were form letters, coming from three perspectives — “a frequent visitor to Stanley and the Sawtooth Valley,” “a private pilot” and “a neighbor.” Those letters focused mostly on the benefits to emergency responders if there’s another place for air ambulances to land and the additional option for pilots who experience aircraft problems and need to make an emergency landing, along with mentioning the history of backcountry flying in Central Idaho.
Letters of opposition cited a far wider range of reasons for that position. Among the concerns raised by opponents were the possible effects on the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve status and potential harm to the area’s tourism and recreation economy.
Others pointed out the Boren airstrip is very close to two other airstrips, one in Stanley and one at Smiley Creek. Boren said landing his plane on his property is legal and lets him be close to his home.
“I don’t want to park my aircraft at a public facility or out in the rain. I want to protect it,” he said at the public hearing.
Some writers and speakers who oppose the permit mentioned approving the permit could set a precedent for development in the recreation area. Others voiced concern about detracting from the Sawtooth Valley’s peace and quiet and the potential harm to wildlife from more planes.
Concerns were raised at the hearing about the possible hazards associated with storing aviation fuel. Boren countered that his storage tanks are top-notch. Answering another question from the commission, Boren said he stores about 2,000 total gallons of fuel at his ranch. That includes gasoline for autos, diesel and aviation fuel, he said. His planes are driven right up to the fuel tanks. Fuel trucks don’t haul the fuel around, he said.
Some opponents disputed that an airstrip is an allowed use in the recreation area and some claimed Boren had illegally constructed an airstrip.
Letter writers and speakers on both sides of the issue expressed their support of the personal property rights of Idahoans.
Planning and Zoning Commission members pressed Kirk Flannigan, Sawtooth National Recreation Area ranger, about the Forest Service’s position on the permit request.
Commission member Gordon Vaden asked why the Forest Service and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area officials weren’t weighing in on the request for a recognized airstrip on land within the national recreation area. Property in that recreation area is subject to various easements that were established at the time the recreation area was created. The SNRA was established by Congress to assure the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values and to provide for the enhancement of recreational values associated with those values.
The question that matters to the Forest Service, Flannigan said, is whether what’s allowed by a conditional use permit is in compliance with state, federal and local laws. If an activity is not in compliance with local, state or federal laws, then it’s not in compliance with the recreation area easement. In this case, if a conditional use permit is required and one hasn’t been issued, then it is a violation, Flannigan said.
No clarity was provided about whether a conditional use permit has been required for Boren to use his pasture as a landing strip. Boren says he does not need a permit for his personal use, but he would need a permit if the airstrip is to be designated as a public service facility.
Because no development proposal related to the airstrip has been submitted to the Forest Service, the Forest Service is not conducting any analysis, Flannigan said.
“We wait for a proposal, or if we see the writing on the wall for development, we do an analysis,” Flannigan said.
If any analysis is conducted on the airstrip, forest personnel would evaluate whether the airstrip sets precedent for the establishment of other airstrips within the national recreation area, Flannigan said, and whether it materially detracts from the recreation area.
When Commission Chairwoman Corinne Jones asked if Custer County could request that the Forest Service conduct an analysis to help the board members make a decision, Custer County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Oleson told her the planning board’s decision needs to be independent and the county’s rules evaluated as that decision is made.
Vaden asked Flannigan who decides if the airstrip is a violation of the conservation or scenic easement.
Airstrips are not specifically mentioned in the easement language, Flannigan said.
Boren said his easement has “no mention of how you access the property.”
The only restriction of the easement that could be in question, according to Boren, is the scenic category. “From a fish point of view, we’re doing very well,” he said. And he said more elk and antelope are on the land now.
Planning commission members asked Boren about the proximity of the strip to both Idaho Highway 75 and the Salmon River. The airstrip’s closest point to the highway, Boren said, is between 1,000 and 1,200 feet and its closest point to the river is about 650 feet.
Amanda Boren pointed out that the Forest Service has airstrips next to the Salmon River and in wilderness areas. “The Forest Service sees it as a compatible use,” she said.
Several speakers at the public hearing talked about the value of the airstrip for emergency service.
Mike Miller, who lives in Challis and spends summers in Stanley, told commission members he supports the airstrip designation “from strictly an emergency standpoint.” It could be a great place to land emergency air vehicles if an accident occurred nearby.
Challis physician assistant Miles Haeberle urged the planning commission to approve the conditional use permit because it would give the Borens “an opportunity to give back to their community.” Haeberle said having another place where air ambulances could land is “necessary” and “important” because “minutes count.”
His wife, Bonnie, said the commission members should approve the conditional use permit so EMS services could use the strip. “If there’s ever an edge you can give the medical professionals, do it,” she said. She also praised the Borens as good people.
In his comments, Rick Hesslebacher pointed out to the commission that no one was arguing that Mike Boren is a good person who wants to do good things. Some speakers and comment letters touched on that. Rather, Hesslebacher said, the issue is about use of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which “is for everyone’s use, not just a few.”
Hesslebacher, other speakers and many of the written comments, focused on the two nearby runways at Smiley Creek and Stanley, which he said could easily be used for emergency landings.
“The argument is ridiculous,” Hesslebacher said, “it’s not for the public good, it’s for his good.”
Another concern Hesselbacher voiced was about potential “creep.” Approving a permit could mean a later request that the airstrip be paved or a helipad be constructed.
That potential for creep was also mentioned by Amy David, who with her husband, Jeremy, manages Margaret Hatch’s ranch across the highway from the Boren ranch.
“How can you say no to the next family if you say yes to this family?” Amy David asked.
Amy David reminded the commission that the recreation area’s scenic easements exist to protect the site. “It’s changing what’s so special about this place,” David said. “This is not the place for this to happen.”
“It’s not about the Boren family being good people,” Amy David said. “I’m sure they are. That’s not what this is about.” Rather, she said it’s about the national recreation area and the public use of the area.
Speaking in favor of the permit, Clayton-area resident Dan Turner said he appreciates Custer County’s hands-off approach to private property rights.
“We have rights in this county to purse happiness,” Turner said. “We all need to share. There’s plenty of room for everybody.”
Turner said he has a Sawtooth National Recreation Area easement on his property and the language in that easement, and others, is “clear, not ambiguous.”
Sarah Michael countered that everyone has property rights. People have bought property and complied with easements on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Michael said.
“They bought thinking their property rights and quality of life are going to be protected, too,” she said. “I hope you think about the people who follow the rules.”
Daniel Hutchison, who said he lives in both Boise and Oregon, told the commission he is thankful Boren is pursuing the private airstrip designation.
“I’m a pilot and any time I see a landowner willing to do this, it warms my heart,” Hutchison said. Having the strip listed on aviation charts and available for use by a pilot experiencing a flying emergency is a plus, too, Hutchison said.