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Wind farm talk puts focus on Gratiot airport

A variance request by Pine River Wind Engineering under consideration by the Gratiot Airport Authority Zoning Board of Appeals has brought a new round of interest to the airport from Gratiot County officials.

The meeting and public hearing at 9 a.m. on Jan. 18 at the Alma Municipal Building is being held because the engineering firm wants to construct 17 of its 68 windmills in the area of surrounding the airport at 3999 W. Seaman Road.

The airport’s zoning ordinance requires a variance for any construction of large structures within 10 miles of the airport.

“We have to determine that their existence where they’re going to be placed will not interfere with any traffic currently and in the future,” said Aeric Ripley, Alma’s assistant city manager.

An opportunity to ask questions about the airport such as its management, finding equitable funding for it, and how much to charge to rent hangars, for example, has been taken by Tim Lambrecht, a county commissioner whose district encompasses the airport and who is on the airport authority board as the county’s appointee to it.

“I think, one, we have an astute administrator who, rather than say ‘yes’ is actually asking questions,” Lambrecht said. “We’ve got this authority that consists of people who (represent municipalities) that pay in. Do we have the right organization and board?”

Ripley said Lambrecht’s inquiries were timely and that the makeup and oversight of the airport should be reviewed at least every year.

“We ask them every year when we go through the budget every year,” Ripley said.

The airport is governed by the Gratiot Community Airport Authority, consisting of the cities of Alma, Ithaca and St. Louis, Arcada and Pine River Townships and Gratiot County.

Both Gratiot County and Alma contribute $26,000 annually, while $4,000 each comes from Ithaca and St. Louis, and Arcada and Pine River townships, according to the city’s fiscal year budget document.

Alma is the airport’s fiduciary entity.

It is managed by McDonald Air Services at an annual cost of $18,780, and it also does winter maintenance of the airport for $25,130 annually.

The airport made $114,243 in revenue and had $94,924 in operating expenses as of May 31, 2017.

Including depreciation, the airport had $166,824 in expenses as of May 31 as well.

The authority also receives funding through hangar rentals and land leases.

Some of the hangars are owned by the Airport Authority and some are owned privately, but the private hangars pay rent for the land the hangar is located on.

A T1 hangar, of which there are six, can be rented for $140 a month, while one of the three T2 hangars can be rented for $180 a month.

The large corporate hangar and office can be rented for $1,840 a month.

The T1, T2 and T3 hangars – defined by size – are owned by the airport authority.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 210 flights this year registered with the AMN official airport registry, according to assistant airport manager Darl Koch.

Along with local and recreational flights, there were flights from business owners, military training and aerial surveying, among other things.