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No deal: FAA refuses to close airport for nationals

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:16 PM

Even with a last minute appeal from Bill Bader to the Chicago Federal Aviation Administration office, the decision is final — the Huron County airport will not be closed to accommodate safety and traffic concerns of Summit Motorsports with more than 60,000 fans expected at this weekend's NHRA Nationals.

A spokeswoman from the Detroit FAA office said Wednesday that a formal proposal had never been submitted. Agency regulations require requests for airport closures be made 90 days in advance, a rule that neither Bader nor the local airport board realized existed. Bader first gave a formal proposal to the local board at the June 17 meeting, bringing along an engineering report he had funded.

He originally asked, and the local airport agreed, that the runway be shut down from Friday through Sunday. With his revised request, the closure would have been from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday night and from 8 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday to allow traffic to enter and exit directly on U.S. 20 to avoid traffic jams from traffic coming from Ohio 601.

Even with a consensus from Summit Motorsports Park, Huron County commissioners, local airport authority members and the Norwalk post of state Highway Patrol that closing the airport for three days would greatly improve traffic flow and increase safety during the big race weekend, the FAA refused to change its mind Thursday.

“Everyone went to bat for us,” Bader said this afternoon, when he originally thought the revised proposal would be accepted. “The fact is that moving people in and out in a timely and safe manner will make a night and day difference.”

Summit Motorsports Park proposed the plan to bring traffic through the airport to the raceway's lots and close down Ohio 601 to through traffic. That would make Ohio 18 and 20 the entrances to the park and avoid the traffic snarls created as 601 empties onto both other roads. The park said the current traffic pattern could create dangerous delays for emergency vehicles as 60,000-plus visitors flock to the races.

County officials and the president of the airport authority held out hope earlier this week for a reconsideration from the FAA to allow short closings of the airport, but an agency spokeswoman said no official proposal was on the table Wednesday afternoon.

The problem this year was timing. The airport has agreed to shut down the runway for four hours to allow traffic to exist through the airport directly onto Ohio 20 after big race nights for several years.

When airport manager Sandy Gordley contacted the Detroit office of the FAA to get approval for the longer closing after the board's June meeting, she was surprised to learn that all airport closings must be submitted in written form with complete comprehensive plans 90 days before the event.

"What was done in the past was we shut down for a four-hour time period. We closed the airport for them to exit traffic," she said.

"We thought we were all in compliance with what we were doing. However, now that a three-day closure was brought to the attention of the FAA, they told us were in violation of the rules.

"I plead ignorance. We didn't know," Gordley said, adding she didn't think Bader's plan addressed all of the FAA's concern.

"He didn't have what is considered a comprehensive plan." He brought aerial photos to explain his ideas, Gordley said, but nothing she could turn into FAA regarding numbers and placements of barricades, extra security and other important issues.

"FAA wanted to work with us. They said, 'We could work with you if we'd had a little more of an advance,'" Gordley said.

Huron County Commissioner Gary Bauer said earlier this week he was still holding out hope for a last-minute change of heart from FAA.

"We do not support the closing of airports for non-aeronautical purposes," said Elizabeth Isham Cory, Detroit FAA spokeswoman, Wednesday. She added the agency would consider written requests if were made 90 days in advance of an event.

FAA allowed Cleveland's Bruce Lakefront Airport to close for many years for the Cleveland Grand Prix.

"We do consider the proposals when they are submitted," Cory said. "No proposal has been submitted."

"The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has to get involved," Bauer said, after initial approval by the Huron County Airport Authority.

Bauer said the limited access to the park from Ohio 601 and Ohio 18, both two-lane roads, causes extensive congestion with thousands of race fans expected.

"It would really help the safety for those three days," he added, including the ability for emergency vehicles to travel in that area.

Summit Motorsparks Park offered to pay $8,000 to the airport authority for the inconvenience of closing down the airport, which board president Bill Toney said would be very welcome.

"We certainly could use the money because we could use it for matching funds from the FAA to make improvements," Toney said.

Toney said Gordley submitted a request by telephone, but the FAA spokeswoman refused to recognize that as a formal application.

"I personally like to accommodate the raceway park in this, but we have to follow the rules and I think most of the board members feel the same way. We are neighbors and it certainly brings a lot of business our way," Toney said. " It would facilitate the movement of traffic and not have a buildup for emergency vehicles to get through."

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