Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2020 issue
The Isle, Minnesota airport IS NOT closing! On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, the Isle City Council voted to enforce the air-easement to clear the tall trees off the south end of the runway. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, Office of Aeronautics had given the city an ultimatum in December 2019: either enforce the easement and clear the trees or face airport closure! Although this is the short and sweet version, the flight arriving at this destination was a bumpy ride, and filled with much turbulence.
The Isle Airport Association, formerly the Isle Flying Club, a Minnesota non-profit, 501c4 organization, has been working on improvements at the airport for more than 8 years. The goal established at that time was to regain “public-use” status. The Isle airport was initially licensed public when it opened in 1956, but became a “private-use” airport in the mid-1980s (more on that later). The Minnesota Office of Aeronautics visited the airport 8 years ago – at the airport association’s request – to look at the possibility of re-designating the airport public. Tall trees were the biggest issue, along both sides of the runway and off both ends. Over several years, a small group of volunteers got busy, and using funds from the association, removed the trees. They hired a local bulldozer operator to push back trees along both sides of the runway, and organized several work parties to cut the trees off the ends of the runway. The association completed everything required by the state, up to the property line to the south, but unless the trees to the south – on private property – were removed, the airport would not be eligible for a public-use license.
The association’s efforts in negotiating with the property owners led nowhere. In fact, these efforts were very unpleasant and put the association in a bad position with both the city and property owners.
About that time, one member of the association suggested they look at the courthouse to see if any air-easements existed. In doing so, the association discovered that when the airport was being established in the early 1950s, the city did in fact obtain an air-easement along the south border of the airport. It was a very straight forward document, prohibiting any object – natural or man-made – from extending into the airspace, creating a hazard to safe flight, and giving the city the authority to “enter the land and cut to the stump” any offending trees or other objects. The association thought their troubles were over, but they were not. Over the next 3 years, the association battled hard to convince the city to take action. While the easement gave the city the authority to remove the trees, it did not obligate it to do so.
In 1954, several aviation-minded citizens from Isle applied for and received a grant from the State of Minnesota, allowing cities to obtain tax forfeited land to be used for constructing airports. The land that the Isle airport sits on today was acquired by a deed dated July 1, 1954, which forever transfers the land to the city, so long as it is used as a municipal airport, and “upon condition that if such use shall ever cease, the land reverts back to the State of Minnesota.” Additional grants were received to help fund the construction of the turf runway, which was completed and licensed for public use in 1956. The airport was initially operated by the city and received state funding, as all public-use airports do.
According to research completed by the association at the Minnesota Office of Aeronautics during the past year, the city began receiving notice from the state in the mid-1970s that trees to the south were becoming a problem and that soon the state would be implementing a new 2500 ft. minimum runway length rule at all public airports. At that time, the runway was only 2300 feet in length.
The communication about the trees and the new runway length rule went back and forth for several years. The state even issued several waivers for its public-use license, allowing time for the city to comply. The air-easement was never mentioned in any of the documents the association researched. Finally, in 1980, the airport was ordered closed by the city and state until corrections were completed. Pilots continued to use the airport even though it was officially “closed,” according to documents found. By 1983, the Isle Flying Club (now the Isle Airport Association), which was formed in 1967, had drafted a lease with the city taking over operation of the airport and applied for a private airport license from the state. The state approved the private license, as the requirements are less restrictive for private airports than for public airports. The first private license was issued for the Isle Airport in 1986. Since 1986, the Isle Airport Association has maintained and operated the airport, with no outside funding, including paying 50% of the city’s liability insurance for the airport.
So, back to the December 2019 meeting and ultimatum given by the state. At that meeting, the state had given the city until April to decide on enforcing the air-easement or face immediate airport closure. What followed was a four-month whirlwind of activity. Isle Airport Association President Dave Retka visited many EAA chapter meetings and airport groups around the state to spread the word, increase the association’s membership, and to get a letter-writing campaign started. The association worked with AOPA, and with their help, presented a townhall meeting to educate the community of the benefits of the airport. The association distributed information packets on the doorsteps of all Isle residents and businesses, and members visited with the city council members who would be making this decision. Then the association began to hear that the city wanted to use the airport property as an RV park. But wait, what about the deed and that the property must remain an airport? Several consultations with a property attorney revealed something called “the 30-year law.” With the 30-year grant assurance expired, the city was now actually able to do whatever it wanted with the property, so this took a lot of wind out of the sails of the airport association.
The association met several times with the city and the state hashing out details. Their whole emphasis during this time was to re-establish the airport as a public-use facility with the benefits of unrestricted use and state funding. The state reviewed what needed to be done and what their funding contribution would be. Members of the association knew that the trees had to come down, but also learned that zoning and an “airport layout plan” would be required, funded by the state at 95%, with the association picking up the remaining 5%. The association assured city officials that there would not be any financial burden on the city. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit causing cancellation of both the April and May city council meetings and created a few other difficulties for the airport association.
With only a few days before the June 9th city council meeting, the state informed the airport association that several homes were in the “clear zone,” an area within 1000 feet of the runway threshold, and would need to be removed to meet public airport status. Not many people, including Retka, were in favor of removing homes to re-establish the airport as public.
The Isle City Council approved that the airport would remain open, but will continue to be a private-use airport and funded solely by the Isle Airport Association with membership dues, donations and proceeds from the annual fly-in breakfast.
NOTE: The Isle Airport Association wishes to thank everyone for their support. The letters written, the phone calls pilots made and the encouragement provided, all made a huge difference. The association could not have accomplished this without these joint efforts.
“We cannot stop here, however,” said Dave Retka. “We must continue to grow our membership and increase the traffic flying into Isle. Please consider joining or renewing your membership in our association.” Contact Dave Retka at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Go Fund Me account has been established to raise the money needed to remove the trees: GoFundMe: https://gf.me/u/x8syy5 or via PayPal: https://www.paypal.me/isleAirport