Bob Martin - TAOS, N.M. (KRQE) - After more than 30 years of public hearings, legal challenges and redesign, construction of a controversial new crosswind runway is progressing at Taos Municipal Airport in northern New Mexico.
While proponents say the new runway will improve safety when high winds don't favor the single existing runway, critics are trying to stop the project, saying the new runway will be unsafe, violate zoning and that it has not undergone adequate review.
"We live at an elevation where horsepower is reduced," said Taos Mayor Dan Barrone. "It's hard to takeoff here and I think it really caters to the pilots and the safety aspect."
Heavy machinery began scraping the shape of the new crosswind runway into the high desert west of the town last week.
A motion for a court injunction by critics had been denied and the group was told to pursue an appeal with county planning officials who had approved the project. That appeal was filed and a hearing has been scheduled for March 4.
Rocky Sylvester is one of those who live under the landing and departure path of the new runway. He is also among the group challenging the runway in court and before local government.
Sylvester says when he bought his house, there was no disclosure that a new runway was a possibility at the nearby airport and air traffic would be sent directly over his home.
"Blind shock, to everybody out here," he said.
The opposition group that includes Sylvester is challenging the county planning office to prove that all FAA requirements for the project have been met. They also allege the purpose of the new longer, wider runway is not to address safety, but is instead to attract more wealthy visitors to the nearby Taos Ski Valley, coming in large private jets.
Sylvester, who is also a pilot, feels that most of the jets will land on the longer new runway despite the fact that prevailing winds will usually not favor it. The new runway will be more than half a mile longer than the present runway.
"Having planes coming and going with a crosswind most of the time, it makes me nervous," he said. "It's a dangerous situation."
Taos Aviation manager and local pilot Joaquim Chavez disagrees. He says the thin air of Taos compromises the performance and safety of planes more than dealing with a slight crosswind on the new, longer runway.
"The problem is we're so high that the length of the runway is inadequate for the business we do anymore," said Chavez. "So in the summer, we have a lot of aircraft going out of here at the absolute limit of their performance."
That leaves little room for the unexpected, he said.
"If the engine does any kind of hiccup, burp, loses a little bit of power, there's not going to be enough thrust to get airborne by the end of the runway."
Chavez says the new, longer runway will provide a margin of safety.
The FAA agreed, and is providing most of the $24 million needed to build the new runway.
That does not dissuade critics who maintain that the FAA studies are outdated. They point to the fact that since the study was done, a new national monument has been created in the flight path of the new runway and that was not included in the evaluation.
After more than 30 years of blocking the project, in 2011 nearby Taos Pueblo finally signed an agreement to support the new runway. In return, they required the FAA to promise to reduce air traffic over the pueblo. The FAA designated airspace boundaries over the pueblo on navigational charts and requests aircraft stay more than 3,000 to 5,000 feet above different parts of the pueblo.
Still, many pueblo residents do not approve of the FAA agreement signed by their tribal leaders. Critics of the new runway who live on the pueblo say the tribal agreement has not been honored and aircraft continue to buzz tribal lands.
"The skies are so important," said Taos Pueblo shop owner Phillip Reyna. "You don't want to see it with trails in the air or low flights."
Reyna is a member of the group taking legal action against the runway project.
Taos artist and local pilot Bill Acheff is an ardent supporter of the runway project. He shows his paintings in galleries from Santa Fe to New York and often travels by air. He bases two planes at the Taos airport.
"I think it will bring more people here," he said. "The economy here is dead. I think it would be good for the community as a whole."
"Taos will never be an Aspen," he added. "I don't see that happening."
But town council member Judi Cantu worries about just that prospect. She is concerned the new runway will attract more of the affluent private jet crowd. High dollar development will follow, along with prices that drive locals out.
"The changes for the people who were there since the establishment of Taos is a huge concern for me," Cantu said.
She feels that a smaller crosswind runway could serve the safety needs of local aviators and the extra money could be used better elsewhere.
"I wish that the federal government had offered this money to work on our roads and our infrastructure and our bridges instead of an airport," Cantu said.
Critics of the runway who have taken legal action say they will continue their appeals in an effort to stop the project.
Town leaders say in the meantime they will keep the heavy machinery working at the airport.