Boulder airport’s uncertain future creates turbulence on the ground

Rachel Steele purchased a home near the airport a few years ago. She fears that changes to the airport will cost her her home. Photo by Jackie Sedley.

The future of the Boulder Municipal Airport is up in the air, with the City struggling to find a balance between protecting community members’ health, and appeasing government regulatory forces that have other interests in mind. KGNU’s Report for America corps member Jackie Sedley has been buzzing around Boulder to learn what all the hubbub is about.

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The Boulder Municipal Airport (BDU) is creating a lot of turbulence lately, with the City of Boulder struggling to find a balance between protecting community members’ health, and appeasing government regulatory forces that have other interests in mind.

So far this year, the City has sought out community feedback through two Airport Community Conversations. During the first Conversation back in April, organizers gathered residents’ questions, comments, and concerns related to the airport as it stands now. Then, those notes were taken into consideration by the Community Working Group – a collective formed in 2019 to help provide input on the future of the airport – and used to inform their creation of four potential scenarios.

The first scenario keeps the airport as is, with small enhancements, the second scenario focuses more on airport improvement, the third keeps the airport intact but adds in some housing, and the fourth decommissions the airport save for a single helipad and adds new housing developments. 

To be clear, these are not the only four potential plans for the Boulder Municipal Airport. They are simply example scenarios based on community feedback.

Looking at community members’ comments regarding BDU, two concerns in particular kept coming up: noise pollution, and usage of leaded fuel.

Through BDU’s noise abatement, pilots are “requested” to avoid operations between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. But these are just requests. Sheila, who requested her last name be kept out of KGNU’s reporting, says many pilots ignore them.

“They’re being violated every day. And multiple times a day,” Sheila says. “And the industry hits back, ‘well, it’s a voluntary noise abatement.’ To use your own language, it is voluntary. So it means you’re volunteering to violate the handshake that you have with the community to be here, because underneath that volunteer effort is the ultimate volunteer, which is the city and the community hosting an airport. Because we, by default, are not required to have an airport here.”

These concerns are not limited to Boulder residents. Bri Lehman is a part of the Community Working Group that helped put together the four scenarios. Lehman lives in Lafayette. She is not anti-airport or anti-aviation, but is certainly anti-lead.

“This is not an issue that only concerns people who are under flight paths. It is an issue that concerns pilots. It should concern them,” Lehman explains. “It’s not just the community that is being impacted by this. It’s everybody.”

Lehman hopes that Boulder can live up to its green reputation by taking the issue of leaded fuel seriously – especially since she does not believe the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will do anything about it.

“In my opinion, the industry does not intend to stop selling leaded fuel and they are tying the ability for airports to take matters into their own hands by withholding funding and other threats. So I think there’s an opportunity in a narrow window for the city of Boulder and its citizens to make their priorities clear,” says Lehman.

Unlike other municipalities, the City of Boulder owns the land and manages the airport. Each acre on the roughly 179-acre property is worth an estimated $2 million dollars. The city can use the land however it wants, technically. But, the FAA is responsible for 90% of the airport’s funding for capital projects like runway repairs, and they have their own agendas for the airport.

Boulder’s Airport Manager John Kinney says that if an airport independently decides to initiate things like noise regulations or fuel prohibitions, things can go south quickly from a financial perspective.

“Noise is such a linchpin issue between the relationships of the community, and it being voluntary makes it problematic,” Kinney explains. “The FAA precludes municipalities from creating further restrictions and it’s tied to your eligibility for grants. So if you break those rules, you don’t get grants.”

BDU is situated on the upper eastern edge of the City of Boulder. In addition to having office parks and the county jail as neighbors, the airport also lives next to the Vista Village Mobile Home Park. Rachel Steele lives there with her husband and seven-year-old daughter. Planes constantly fly overhead, muted from inside her home but not undetectable. Nonetheless, Steele is pretty used to it.

“I don’t find myself regularly annoyed by it, but I definitely experience them in the sky,” Steele says. “There are times when they come in low, but I also know there’s a lot of students. I feel like living on Broadway is louder than living here.”

Steele is reassured by the fact that she does not live directly under the flight path, but is not entirely sure how worried she should be about the environmental impacts of the airport.

But though she tolerates the airport, she does not want to see it expand to any larger capacity. She fears the affordability of her home if BDU is to expand.

“The truth is, when things become more valuable, when it’s quieter and there’s big open spaces to build big expensive homes, it becomes less likely that I’ll be able to stay here,” says Steele.

For now, there are no specific deadlines in place for when decisions about the Airport’s future must be made.

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    Boulder airport’s uncertain future creates turbulence on the ground Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley

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