Several members of the Boulder City Council have indicated they want to shut down the municipal airport and repurpose the land for housing. But during a city council meeting on Thursday, Aug. 24, they pumped the brakes on that decision, citing concerns about setting off a protracted legal clash with the Federal Aviation Administration.
As a next step, they requested information from city planners on whether decommissioning the airport is even legally possible before they make any decision.
A formal vote by the Boulder City Council is expected early next year.
“There’s a lot of energy for the possibility of housing there,” Councilmember Rachel Friend said. “And if that’s not a realistic or legitimate possibility at this stage, how do we vet that and move forward without wasting people’s time?”
The Boulder Municipal Airport dates back to a dirt landing strip in 1928 in the city’s northwest corner. Today, it is primarily used by hobbyists, people training to be pilots and visitors. It sits on top of 179 acres of city-owned land that some want to see redeveloped into housing, part of a broader effort aimed at chipping away at the housing crisis.
The desire to close the airport seems to have united councilmembers and others with differing political ideologies, signifying a rare consensus on housing solutions.
Earlier this year, city officials partnered with a consulting firm to gather feedback from the community over what to do with the airport. The range of possibilities includes leaving it mostly as is, allowing people to live and work in hangers, adding community amenities, such as a cafe, or decommissioning it and creating a residential neighborhood.
The Boulder City Council’s input this week on the airport’s future is likely the last time councilmembers will weigh in before the Nov. 7 election, when five of the nine seats on the council are up for election. This means the next city council will decide the fate of the airport, as soon as early 2024.
The biggest unknown at this stage is what obligations the city has with the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the airport running. The FAA has given the city grant money to buy land and maintain landing strips. Those grants have assurances that the city keeps the airport operating and maintained, according to an FAA official.
During Thursday’s meeting, councilmembers pressed city officials on whether the city can legally close the airport and how much it would cost. City Attorney Teresa Tate said the city needs more information.
Ultimately, Tate said, the answer may come down to the city’s “appetite for litigation” with the FAA.
Councilmember Mark Wallach suggested city officials have completed a legal analysis indicating that covenants with the FAA binding the city to continue to operate the airport have expired.
“You can’t simply keep this kind of information from the community, and then go on and say, ‘but look, we can’t do this,’” he told city officials. “Is it your intention to release some of the key information contained in that independent attorney’s analysis or are we going to continue to treat this as the Pentagon Papers?”
Tate said she cannot share confidential legal guidance.
“We’re doing our best to share information. I’m loath to share litigation strategy in a public forum,” Tate said. “I do not have the authority to release confidential legal advice.”
Some residents see the airport as an “invaluable asset to the entire Boulder community,” according to a recent city survey. Proponents commonly highlight its value in pilot training, scientific research and certain emergency operations.
Neighbors, however, frequently file complaints over noise. Others are concerned about lead exposure from the fuel used in aircraft. Lead has been found in the blood of children living near airports and acts as a neurotoxin.
But the primary driving force behind the effort to close the airport has been the opportunity to potentially build thousands of units of housing. Because the city owns the land, it could require developers to build homes at whatever price point it desires. This could include homes that are affordable to middle-income families, who might not qualify for housing subsidies but also can’t afford to buy or rent in Boulder.
Meanwhile, some councilmembers on Thursday were interested in how the airport’s closure would impact noise pollution and air traffic over Boulder. John Kinney, Boulder airport senior manager, predicted if the airport closed, the city would actually experience more air traffic.
“Airspace is such an incredibly scarce commodity,” Kinney said. “It’s almost like taking your hand out of a bucket of water. It would just immediately close up. It’s because the traffic from [Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport] would immediately shift over the top of Boulder.”