The Airport That Wouldn't Die

Last fall, environmentalists thought they'd finally put a stake through the heart of the West Side Airport. But the mayoral race seems to have given it a new lease on life.

Last September, environmental attorney Jim Blackburn thought he was approaching the end of one of the most contentious battles he had ever fought with Houston developers and city planners. The note of optimism had been struck during a meeting with Mayor Bob Lanier and his key staff members on the subject of the West Side Airport. Following years of acrimonious struggle, Blackburn got the impression that the city of Houston was finally ready to lay the airport to rest.

As far as Blackburn was concerned, it was about time. Ever since 1986, when City Council and then-mayor Kathy Whitmire bought a 1,400-acre site near the town of Brookshire, both federal agencies and private environmental groups had opposed the use of the site for aviation. The West Side Airport would be dangerous for airplanes, they argued, because it put them in the flight path of millions of wintering geese, ducks and shore birds that use the airport site, which is situated on the western edge of the Katy Prairie. The airport, they also argued, would substantially reduce the value of an extraordinary wildlife habitat only 25 miles west of downtown Houston.

In 1993, Blackburn sued on behalf of the Houston Sierra Club and Houston Audubon Society to stop construction of the airport; his case was thrown out of court because the city had not yet completed its environmental impact statement for the airport, and so there was nothing to officially file suit against. Nonetheless, the threat of the lawsuit hung in the air, just waiting for the impact statement to be finished, and Blackburn has no doubt that the threat made the Federal Aviation Administration slow down its planning. In 1994 the FAA declared that the city's draft environmental study was inadequate and needed further work. The city, rather than put more money into a final environmental impact statement, stalled. The West Side Airport hadn't been officially rejected, but it had been put in bureaucratic limbo.

The prospects for the airport seemed even dimmer as the predicted demand for private and corporate planes at a west side general aviation airport -- a demand that would make such an airport crucial, according to backers -- failed to materialize. Lanier, a plane owner himself, couldn't see much need for the project. In August 1994 he struck the airport from the city's list of capital projects, declaring to the Chronicle, "If it's not dead, it's certainly on life support."

So last fall, when Blackburn proposed that the city either sell the airport land to environmental groups or turn it into a wildlife park, the mayor was willing to listen. It wouldn't take much effort to flood the land and do a little controlled burning to encourage the growth of wetlands plants that would attract even more birds to the area. Build a boardwalk and some blinds, and presto, the city would have a wildlife park. Blackburn didn't mention it at the meeting, but he and his supporters wanted to name the proposed park after Lanier.

Blackburn, though, had commitments of only $1 million to buy the land, not nearly enough to cover its $5.7 million cost. Lanier preferred to keep the site for the city anyway. Even so, the city's aviation department, whose budget is funded separately from other city departments, would have to be compensated if the property was used for other purposes. Such a sum wasn't likely to come from the parks budget. The city could possibly make money from the site by using it as a "mitigation bank" for developers wanting to fill wetlands in other areas, but that wasn't likely to generate enough cash either. Lanier turned to his public works director, Jimmie Schindewolf, for ways to find enough money to pay for the airport site. The city has a substantial need for water wells, wells the site could support, and Schindewolf indicated that the Public Works and Engineering Department could probably find the purchase price in its budget. Go study how to do it, Lanier told Schindewolf, and come back with an answer.

Listening, Blackburn was elated. The environmentalists, he thought, had won one. But as he later discovered, the battle was far from over. Once the politically influential west side developers who favored the airport found out what had happened, Schindewolf's report became lost in bureaucratic limbo, just as the airport's final environmental impact statement had. Instead of the answer Lanier had demanded, what the city ended up getting was the revival of a nearly dead idea. A small group of business leaders has now turned the West Side Airport into a political litmus test for mayoral candidates. It's as if they've decided they're not going to let a bunch of bird watchers back them down. And that they're not going to let the West Side Airport perish.

The need for an airport on Houston's west side was first projected during the boom years of the early '70s, when the price of oil and Houston's fortunes seemed destined to rise forever. The oil bust crushed those expectations in the mid-1980s, but not those of the West Side Airport. Despite the downturn in the local economy, in 1985 planners for the city aviation department predicted an increased need for general aviation, the private and corporate planes that are associated with the rise and fall of the energy industry. The need would be so acute, said the city's longtime aviation director Paul Gaines, that the four existing private airports on the west side of town would be not able to meet the demand. Although the biggest of them, then privately owned Hull airport (now owned by the city of Sugar Land) had an $8 million runway and instruments comparable to those at Hobby, Gaines insisted that there appeared to be more long-term demand than Hull could satisfy. A west side airport, he argued, might eventually serve commercial needs, and two runways long enough for most commercial jets, one of 8,000 feet and another of 6,000 feet, were designed for the potential airport.

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