Oklahoma landowners register private airstrips to keep wind farms at bay
Credit: By Paul Monies | The Oklahoman | May 22, 2016 | newsok.com ~~
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Rooster Barn Regional. Logues International Airport. Condit Regional Airport.
An airport boom is underway in southwest Oklahoma. But don’t expect to be in long security lines or grab a coffee while you wait for a flight.
These are airstrips registered with the Federal Aviation Administration for private use. Most are turf runways mowed out of a pasture. Some even have a wind sock. But they have no lights or other nighttime warnings.
The rush to register airstrips is part of the fallout from a state law passed last year that put in siting regulations on wind turbines. Senate Bill 808 said the turbines had to be at least 1.5 nautical miles – 9,100 feet – from a school, hospital or airport. The law went into effect in November.
Rural landowners who don’t want wind developments nearby are using the law to push the turbines back. Privately, some wind industry representatives accuse them of blocking wind farms with what they call “shamports.”
More than two dozen private air strips have been certified by the FAA so this year. At least 15 of them are near Marlow in Stephens County.
NextEra Energy Resources plans a 120-turbine project in Stephens and Grady counties. The Rush Springs project is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Further north, NextEra is building an expansion to the Minco wind farm in Canadian and Caddo counties. The company declined repeated requests for comment.
Lynn Logue, a Marlow resident who registered Logues International Airport in February, said he understands both sides of the wind development issue. But he wanted to protect his property value. Logue, who isn’t a pilot, said he has several neighbors who feel the same way.
“I still think Oklahoma is a beautiful spot,” Logue said. “I just don’t particularly care to be looking at that kind of thing. Unfortunately, its really put neighbor against neighbor. I hate to see that kind of deal go that way. If I had some land that I didn’t live on and I wanted them, I’d feel it’s my right to put it on there. I see both sides.”
Logue said he’s got about 210 acres at his place four miles northeast of Marlow. The turf runway he put in is 80 feet wide by 1,300 feet long. He didn’t gave the name much thought, although his friends joked he should call it Logues Un-International Airport.
Aaron Bratcher, who recently registered Bratcher Private Airstrip near Marlow, said some of landowners now applying for airstrips have had them for many years. His father had a pilot’s license, and neighbors used the family’s airstrip for crop dusting planes, he said. Bratcher has 520 acres, but he is upset about a substation for a wind project going in near his house.
“I think my dad had it registered until about 2005, and it’s always been maintained,” Bratcher said of the airstrip. “I didn’t just rush out and create this.”
For its part, the FAA said its main concern is safety. It doesn’t ask applicants why they want to register a private airstrip.
“Our process looks at any effects the airstrip would have on existing airports and, if applicable, whether it would affect any controlled airspace in the area,” FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said in an email. “We probably wouldn’t approve an airfield that would interfere with the flight paths for a major airport, for example. We have no say over land use itself. That’s a local zoning question.”
The Oklahoman cross-referenced airstrip applicants with a list of pilot licenses. Just a few of the 30 applicants for private airstrips this year have pilot licenses, according to FAA data.
Among them is Raymond Rust, who has been a pilot since 1960. He and his son have three airplanes. Rust registered the Rush Springs Airstrip in February.
“We’ve had it out here for a while, but we wanted to register it to keep them away from the airstrip,” Rust said of wind turbines planned nearby. “A man from the FAA came out to inspect it to make sure it’s safe. Once it’s registered, it shows up on all the flying maps, GPS and section maps.”
You’d have a hard time getting Jerry Condit in a plane. He’s only been up one time, and it took some whiskey, he said. Condit said his grandson helped with the FAA applications for two airstrips, Rooster Barn Regional and Condit Regional Airport near Foster in Garvin County.
Condit said a wind developer sent a letter offering to lease 40 to 100 acres of his land, but he wanted no part of it. Condit has about 1,200 acres near Foster. He’s got oil leases and several pipelines crossing his property.
“With those wind turbines, their contract is about 40-something pages long, and it’s written in there that you can’t do this or can’t do that on your own place,” Condit said. “If I own my own place, I want to do exactly what I want to on it, and I don’t want their turbines. If anybody wants them, I’m all for it, but I just don’t want them.”
Condit said he used to have fighting roosters before they were outlawed, so he named one of the airstrips Rooster Barn Regional.
“You’ve just got to put a wind sock up. That’s the way I understood it,” Condit said. “I don’t even like to fly. I’ve only ever been in an airplane but one time. Scared to death. If it hadn’t been for a fifth of whiskey, I probably would have had a heart attack. I was in the back seat.”
SB 808 has created another land rush in Oklahoma, only this time it’s a race to register wind developments. Rules adopted by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in March spell out how wind developers are supposed to notify the public of planned developments.
Commission officials said if landowners can get private airstrips registered with the FAA before wind developers begin the notification process for new projects, then their 1.5-nautical-mile setback will prevail. But landowners can’t apply for an airstrip – and get its setback – after the developer has notified county commissioners and placed a public notice in local newspapers.
Wind industry representatives said the law has accelerated the development process. The typical wind farm can take up to four years to develop, but the law has meant developers are now applying for FAA turbine permits months and sometimes years before they plan to build a project or even have a signed power purchase agreement.
The Corporation Commission has no siting authority for individual wind turbines, although the commission is responsible for making sure developers post the surety bonds needed for future decommissioning of wind turbines.
WindWaste, a group formed by Claremore businessman Frank Robson, pushed for SB 808 last year.
“The airport, school and other setback requirements of the statute provide a minimal measure of safety to the people of Oklahoma from the previously unhindered placement of large industrial wind turbines,” said Rick Mosier with WindWaste and the Oklahoma Property Rights Association. “These setbacks were agreed to by the wind industry and other interested parties. We cannot speculate on what others’ impetus may have been behind any increase in applications for private airports.”
The Wind Coalition, which represents the wind industry, said the provision in the siting law on private airstrips needs to be revisited.
“This well-meaning law, intended to protect pilots, is being abused and is actually creating risk to pilots by naming airstrips that may never be formally constructed or maintained,” the Wind Coalition said in a statement. “Ultimately, this abuse is costly to local taxpayers as it prevents community investment and denies schools and local governments the opportunity to grow their tax base.
“The Legislature’s intent was to ensure legitimate airstrips have agreed-upon setbacks; however, the reality of the legislation has not matched the measure’s intent.”
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