Longmont Airport Cameras Captured Multiple Off-target Mile-Hi Skydiving Landings
Cameras at Longmont’s Vance Brand Municipal Airport monitoring Mile-Hi Skydiving operations have captured parachutists landing outside the drop zones laid out by the city and the company several times since recording began in October, city officials confirmed Monday.
Use of the video cameras and the recently updated land use policies at the airport are at the center of a lawsuit and a complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration, both filed by Mile-Hi against the city last month . Both allege the new regulations and the surveillance are discriminatory.
The city has denied the company’s claims, asking Boulder District Court to dismiss the case because it lacks jurisdiction. Only the FAA can determine the merit of Mile-Hi’s complaint, Longmont argues.
But the airport land use policies underlying the suit are the result of years of contentiousness and legal battles between Mile-Hi and the Citizens for Quiet Skies anti-airport noise group, and were only established because city leaders lately have given more credence to the group’s concerns, stakeholders of Vance Brand Airport activity said.
‘Failure of leadership’
The new land use policies set a rate of just under 11 cents per square foot for annual airport property use, which raised the amount Mile-Hi would have paid the city for the 975,000-square-foot area it had used for years prior while paying a straight $7,896 yearly fee. The new daily rate for the 338,000-square-foot area the city mandated the company rent at minimum is $99.36, which would total about $18,679 for the year if Mile-Hi uses it 188 days, as it did in 2018, according to city spokesman Rigo Leal.
“I think there has been a failure of leadership on both sides, Mile-Hi as well as the city,” said Jeff Bowman, who flies out of Vance Brand where he keeps a plane. ”... I think the city has had Quiet Skies in their ears so long that it’s made it difficult for them to forge an (agreement) that was fair to both parties.”
Quiet Skies organizer Kimberly Gibbs said her group simply put facts obtained from public records regarding Vance Brand budgets and land use policies in front of city leaders, contrasting a statement in a report compiled by Bowman and other airport users that was shared with Longmont leaders stating the city has given “undue” attention to the group’s concerns.
“The reason we have gained credibility in dealing with the city is directly because we’ve done the research and provided the information to the city that can be easily verified,” Gibbs said. “We are the citizens that have made the open records requests and given the public officials every opportunity to present their facts.”
Quiet Skies brought a lawsuit against Mile-Hi over allegedly excessive noise caused by the company’s planes flying over Boulder County homes, and appealed rulings in favor of the company up until the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case .
But Gibbs commended the city for standing up for its new policies when faced with the possibility of litigation — city officials said Mile-Hi threatened to sue Longmont if it deemed the updated fee structure city council approved to take effect in January 2018 to be too costly. Council approved the least expensive of the three land use fee structures under consideration at the time.
“Mile-Hi’s state lawsuit and injunction essentially ask the state court to prevent the city from enforcing any city ordinances against Mile-Hi, or to require Mile-Hi to pay any fees for its use of the public airport, until such decision (by the FAA on the company’s complaint) is issued,” Leal said, adding the complaint had not yet been docketed by the agency and the city would respond to it when appropriate.
The city in November required Mile-Hi to pay for a larger area than it had been renting as a drop zone under the new fee structure, after the airport cameras documented parachutists landing outside the area for which the company paid, Leal said. Parachutists also have landed outside airport property entirely, past Times-Call reporting and city records confirm.
An exhibit being used in the lawsuit shows 11 dates since June that the city has reported off-target parachute landings, sometimes several in the same day, including seven since the city began video monitoring the airport land. Mile-Hi has only reported off-target landings on three of those dates, the exhibit shows, with the company banning one jumper from booking ensuing flights with the company without additional skydiving training after he or she veered away from the landing zone in air.
Mile-Hi owner Frank Casares on Monday, though, said the city’s per-square-foot model for land use at the airport is rare, claiming he couldn’t find another example of a U.S. airport that uses such a structure to charge skydiving operations.
Casares and Anthony Leffert, Mile-Hi’s attorney in the Boulder District Court case asking for an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its new land use policies, also are concerned about the track record of a consultant hired this year by the city to prepare a report on the safety of airport activity and the configuration of Vance Brand.
They say the fact the city hired Florida-based Quadrex Aviation and is paying $29,737 for a safety evaluation at Vance Brand, despite the FAA performing such assessments for free when requested, shows the city is hoping for a recommendation that could negatively impact Mile-Hi.
Casares and Leffert point to a 2015 Lakeland Ledger newspaper article in which Quadrex owner David Byers was quoted that allowing skydiving at the Venice Municipal Airport in Florida represents a “medium risk” and that “it’s probable it might happen and have major consequences,” in regards to a skydiving-related accident as a sign that Quadrex has an anti-parachuting bias.
That warning from Byers came despite the Florida airport having less air traffic than Vance Brand, according to Casares, and the skydiving operation in question being limited to tandem jumps — Mile-Hi offers additional jumping options.
Mile-Hi has made a request to the FAA for a separate safety assessment of Vance Brand by the government agency; company leaders do not yet know if or when the FAA will oblige.
Quadrex’s report to the city is expected to be completed this month.
“No drop zone that is nearly the size of what we’re doing is being charged for landing at the airport, not to the degree we’re paying,” Casares said. “They came up with this as a way to try and get more money out of me. ... Why would the city hire a company to do a safety analysis which means nothing as far as the FAA is concerned, and pay a lot of money, when the FAA will do the one that counts for free?”
He also said there has not been an instance of a skydiver colliding with an aircraft since his company has been using the airport.
New fees FAA’s idea
An affidavit signed by Longmont Airport Manager David Slayter states the per-square-foot model for land use fees adopted by the city was suggested by the FAA.
“In recent months, airport staff has been approached by experienced skydivers who, asking for anonymity, felt obligated to report concerns about how Mile-Hi conducted its operations, including the lack of instruction on the location of the parachute drop zone and the belief on the part of skydivers that the entire undeveloped parcel on the airport’s south side may be used for skydiving,” Slayter stated in the affidavit. “The airport reported these and other safety concerns to FAA safety regulators at the Flight Standards District Office and the Airports District Office, including the whistleblower reports from skydivers, one of which Mile-Hi banned after she raised safety concerns with the U.S. Parachute Association.”
Attorney Leffert suggested the city designed the fees to charge Mile-Hi additional monetary penalties for off-target landings.
“They know skydivers are not always going to hit that small zone,” Leffert said. “They did that as a basis to set up increased fees, penalties or whatever you want to call them. ... (Longmont) is trying to get (Mile-Hi) off the property. They’re doing everything they can to make it difficult for Mile-Hi.”
Casares said the city has not yet charged Mile-Hi any fines or other payments for off-target landings.
The informal airport development committee led by Bowman and others also put together a list of safety concerns about Vance Brand and presented them to the city’s Airport Advisory Board in March, so that Longmont’s “airport manager and the city council received a comprehensive view of the safety issues at the airport, and did not focus solely on the findings of a safety consultant with a possible bias against Mile-Hi Skydiving,” Bowman said.
“I don’t know if the consultant hired by the city has that bias, but I also don’t know of any pilots that the consultant has spoken with that are based out of Vance Brand Airport,” Bowman said.
The report the informal airport committee gave the advisory board included 11 safety concerns, two of which were Mile-Hi-related: the company constantly parks a fuel truck adjacent to Vance Brand’s main taxiway, which the report described as a “disaster waiting to happen if a plane loses directional control on takeoff or landing, or a plane on taxiway clips the truck.” It also called skydivers floating across the runway and taxiway a rare and medium risk.
The informal airport development committee’s report given to council earlier this year predicted Mile-Hi would oppose expansion of the airport because it could force the company — the airport’s most frequent current user — to relocate its jump zone.
Longmont in October applied for $22.8 million in FAA grants for airport construction of an extended runway and other amenities. Whether those applications could be impacted by the legal dispute, in which Mile-Hi alleges Longmont’s new policies violate conditions of previous FAA grants, remains unclear.
Leal late Monday evening said a judge denied a Mile-Hi motion to enter a temporary restraining order against the city and set a hearing for May 31 on the company’s request for a preliminary injunction against the city.
Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/samlounz .